There are several differences in the human skeletal structure and that of a dog, but there are just as many similarities. The spine of both a human and dog is made up of a series of small vertebrae that form the solid structure of the spine. Each one of the vertebrae is made of bone, and if not cushioned from each other would be very painful and cause pressure and pinching of the delicate bundle of nerves known as the spinal cord that travels through the center of the vertebrae. To provide cushioning between each vertebrae there is a series of flexible cartilage discs known as intervertebral discs between each. These discs provide the movement of the spine as well as protection for the spinal cord during movement and protection of the bones of the vertebrae from rubbing and wearing.
Unlike humans, the dogs weight is carried downward from their spine, putting more pressure on the spine the longer the dog's back is. Intervertebral disc disease is a condition that is most problematic in those long backed breeds such as the Basset Hound and the Dachshund, but it can occur in any dog, especially if the dog is obese. Intervertebral disc disease is a rupture or degeneration of the flexible cartilage discs that protect the spinal cord and allow the back to move freely. This rupture or degeneration of the cartilage can occur because of a trauma to the back or due to age. The disc, when ruptured, can bulge upwards, putting pressure on the spinal cord itself. This conditions, known in humans as a "slipped disc" is extremely painful and can result in paralysis of the area behind the damaged disc. It may also affect the function of the neurological system and typically results in weakness of the limbs, inability to move or get up or down, as well as extreme sensitively to any pressure or weight on the limbs or back.
Diagnosis of intervertebral disc disease is done by a careful examination of the back and the behavior of the dog, followed by x-rays. Depending on the location of the rupture the dog may not turn his or her head if the rupture is in the neck, may arch the back if the rupture is more central, or may not be able to move the hind quarters if the rupture is towards the tail area. In severe situations the dog may become completely paralyzed and may lose control of his or her bladder or bowel functions. This situation is fatal without treatment as the toxins will build in the dog's system very quickly.
Typically treatment, if started immediately after the first signs are noticed includes the use of anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids to shrink the rupture and manage the pain. The dog should be completely restricted from jumping or running and should be given as much time to rest and recover as possible. In serious ruptures surgery may be required to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord. Depending on the location of the rupture surgery can be moderately to highly effective.
To prevent intervertebral disc disease always restrict long backed dogs from jumping up or down, especially off furniture. Keep your dog within the recommended weight range for his or her breed and size and never encourage any types of activities that will put pressure on the dogs back such as jumping for a Frisbee or even jumping in and out of a car.