J.C. Hardin, DVM
There are several types of spinal disk disease. 'Type one' involves a tear in the 'annulus fibrosis', the outer layer of a disk, with herniation of the 'jelly filling' (nucleus pulposus) into the spinal canal, that puts pressure on the spinal cord. This usually results in partial or full loss of function (paresis or paralysis) in the legs and sometimes the bladder, colon, tail, and anus. The general location of the diseased disk can often be surmised by whether the front and back legs are affected, only the back legs, etc. "Type two' disk disease involves a bulging of the disk. This often only results in intermittent pain ('root signature') in one limb. Front leg lameness on one side is often due to a bulging (type two) disk in the neck. "Type three" disk disease involves a small bit of disk material that jets through the spinal cord at high velocity. The amount of disk material involved is too small to warrant surgery. Another spinal problem is called 'FCE' or 'fibrocartilaginous embolus'. This involves a loss of blood flow to a small section of spinal cord, usually only on one side, from a piece of disk material that breaks free and occludes a small artery. Though some pain can be experienced initially, most FCE patients show no pain during the exam, and loss of function is usually worse on one side of the body than the other. FCE and 'type three' disk disease patients can regain function (even back to normal in many cases) but many months of physical therapy are usually needed. The degree of spinal cord impingement or compromise is assessed with several tests the doctor performs. Reflexes, responses, motor function, and 'conscious proprioception' are evaluated. X-rays only show a problem in about 50% of cases. Referral for a myelogram, and sometimes a CT scan, and/or MRI is usually needed for exact diagnosis. Sometimes pain is the only symptom with type one disk disease. These pets are at risk for paresis (partial loss of function) or paralysis, if the 'jelly filling' herniates. If your pet is suspected of having a 'cracked' disk, it is VERY important that you not allow them to use stairs, jump on/off furniture, rough-house with other pets, etc. Ideally, these pets are confined to a crate with thick bedding for six weeks to hopefully allow the disk to heal. This is especially important if pain medication is being given, as patients will feel better and want to be more active, thereby increasing their risk for further disk herniation and subsequent paralysis. The bedding of crated pets must be inspected several times daily to be sure it is clean and dry, to prevent urine scald and bed sores. Several times daily, you can allow your pet to take short leash walks for 'bathroom business', but do not let them off the leash, do not let them walk up or down stairs, do not let them run or play, and carry them carefully. The proper way to carry a pet with spinal disk disease is to place one hand between the front legs, so that the hand presses up on the breastbone, and one hand between the back legs, so the hand presses up on the pelvis. The worst way to carry a pet with spinal disk disease is to drape the abdomen over your forearm and allow the back legs to dangle. Do not lift your pet from beneath the armpits either. Keep their spine parallel to the floor. Bladder management is of great importance with spinal patients. Frequently, spinal patients do not empty their bladders appropriately and need to be 'expressed' several times daily. Have your doctor teach you how to palpate for your pet's bladder so you can monitor this. Pets that are already paralyzed or who become paralyzed despite conservative care need to be seen quickly by a spinal surgeon. Time is of the essence, especially if nerve function loss is severe. With surgery and physical therapy, many type one disk disease patients can regain the ability to walk.