(In Plain English)
original script by
Sandra J. Russell, Duchwood Kennels, reg.
(Not to be reproduced in books, magazine articles, handouts, or on web sites without permission of the author; however, feel free to link to this site from your web site.)

All statements are my opinions and observations on the subject and are not the opinions or position of any dog organization or veterinary professional.  I am not a canine neurologist or veterinarian, and do not intend the information presented below to be used in lieu of professional veterinary advice and treatment.  Each dog, and each back problem, is different, and such general statements as below cannot be used as a prescription for every situation.  Just as with human medical doctors, it is often advisable to get second, third, or more opinions for major veterinary medical treatments.  Since human and animal doctors can have differing opinions, you can be certain that Dachshund breeders will have opposing viewpoints, as well.  My opinions below are simply provided as an awareness or educational effort so that the Dachshund owner has the knowledge to ask pertinent questions and make informed decisions on this important (and potentially expensive) subject.


Dachshunds are a dwarf breed of dog - the technical term is "achondroplastic" - but "dwarf" is the common usage.  Their skeleton is basically that of a large dog, but the length of the body has been exaggerated and the legs have been shortened.  All of these man-made changes have caused an unusual amount of stress to be placed on the spinal column.  Other "dwarf" breeds, like Corgis, Bassets, Pekingnese, Papillons, Toy Poodles, and Shih Tzus, are also prone to back problems, also known as IVDD, or Intervertebral Disk Disease.  It will be called just "disk disease" in this article.

The bony vertebrae that surround the spinal cord in any dog, or any mammal or human, for that matter, make up the spinal column.  Each vertebra is cushioned from the adjoining vertebra by a disk, or pillow, which is filled with a stiff, gel-like material.  This allows the spine to flex in all directions while still protecting the spinal cord.   When one of these disks "blows", or partially "blows", the gel-like material inside leaks out, either explosively or very slowly, and will calcify, or harden, over time.  The amount of damage done to the spinal cord depends on which direction the disk gel leaks out.  If the disk material explodes upward into the spinal cord, or forward along the spinal cord, much nerve damage, pain, and even paralysis, can occur because the spinal cord is being compressed.  Slowly leaking disks can cause pain and a wobbly rear (ataxia), or paralysis.  

What causes a disk to blow?  Severe injury, such as being hit by a car or falling from a very great height, accounts for maybe less than 1% of ALL back problems in Dachshunds.  The main UNDERLYING cause (99+%) of all disk problems (IVDD), back pain, paralysis, etc. in Dachshunds is GENETICS.  If a breeder tells you they have never had any back problems in their dogs they are either lying, won't admit it, are burying their heads in the sand and calling back "incidents" injuries, or have not bred enough dogs to have encountered the problem in their line.  ALL bloodlines and ALL sizes and coats of Dachshunds have potential back problems.  It is just in the breed but it is impossible to predict it's occurrence in any particular dog.  Several genes must come together in the right combination in order to cause a blown disk.

Although an event, such as a tumble down the stairs, or falling off the bed, may SEEM to have caused a back problem, the genetic predisposition to blow a disk has to be there first.  Consider this - thousands, or even millions of dogs of all breeds jump off stairs or beds or sofas every day and never have any problems.  If a Dachshund develops a back problem, it is because he/she has the unfortunate combination of genes that have weakened the disk(s) in its back.  Most Dachshunds blow a disk just sitting around, and many blow one while sleeping.  The owner puts a perfectly fine dog to bed at night and wakes up to a paralyzed dog.

So, get over the guilt!  While being overweight AND being allowed to jump down steps and off furniture may have caused the disk to blow a little earlier than it might have if the dog had been in better shape, most Dachshunds that blow disks are in good weight and condition.  Having said this, I will never allow my dogs to jump down from stairs or furniture, or become obese, because there are other injuries and illnesses that may occur. Short-backed Dachshunds can blow a disk just as well as long-backed Dachshunds. Genetics determines whether or not a particular disk will blow, and genetics and environment can act together to determine when a disk will blow.  There's not much you can do to prevent a disk from blowing, although keeping your dog in good condition and weight may lessen the severity of damage and enhance recovery. 

As a breeder, I find this very frustrating since Dachshunds who blow disks are usually 4 or more years old (ages 4-6 are the prime ages, although some back problems will show up at ages 10-12), so I may have bred a dog several times prior to it going down.  There are currently no diagnostic tools, such as x-rays, that a breeder can use to reliably predict whether a particular dog will blow a disk later in life.  If there were, we certainly wouldn't breed a dog that would later have a back problem.  Any Dachshund which has been used for breeding that exhibits any signs of back pain and "the wobbles" or paralysis, should be immediately and permanently removed from any breeding program and neutered.  Owners of this dog's offspring MUST be notified that there has been a disk problem.  Breeders must be willing to share information about disk problems in their bloodlines.  It is nothing to be ashamed of but vital if this disease is to be conquered, or at least, mitigated.

Speaking of x-rays, you may have heard about some extensive studies that have been done overseas concerning the number of calcifications in a Dachshund spine at age 2 and the prediction of it blowing a disk at a later age.  No connection has been proven - some dogs with lots of calcifications never had back problems, and some with no calcifications ended up paralyzed.  Also, most calcifications tend to disappear after age 2, for no apparent reason, so back x-rays have yet to be proven as a useful screening tool for disk disease.

Please remember that becoming paralyzed is NOT an automatic death sentence for any Dachshund.  Do not allow your vet to proclaim your dog has back/disk problems and must be put down.  Find another vet immediately (not the next day) because time is of the essence in treating disk problems.  There are many treatment options for back problems, and most can be successful if implemented immediately.   However, no matter which treatment the owner chooses, at least 6 weeks at the minimum must be allowed for the dog to recover.  If your dog is still paralyzed after 2 weeks of treatment or after surgery, do not give up hope.  I know of Dachshunds who were paralyzed for many months yet made a full and/or a functional, recovery.  If you truly love your dog, give him or her enough time to recover with appropriate nursing care.

Blown Disks - complete or partial paralysis or maybe not a blown disk at all

If you come home, or wake up, to a Dachshund who appears to be paralyzed, or partially paralyzed in the rear, or simply hunched up in pain and/or wobbly in the rear, or completely paralyzed front and rear, your dog MAY have a blown disk requiring IMMEDIATE emergency veterinary treatment.  I say "may", because there are other conditions which can make a dog ACT like it is paralyzed or experiencing great back pain.  Make sure your vet rules out these other possibilities, first, before claiming your dog is suffering from disk disease.  Too many vets are quick to pronounce the verdict "back problems" simply because it is a Dachshund.  This does a great disservice to the dog and the owner, because although time is of the essence when treating a blown disk, these other, easily remedied conditions MUST be ruled out first.  All of these can be ruled out by running a complete blood panel (CBC, liver enzymes, kidney function, etc.) and giving the dog a thorough physical, all of which should take less than an hour to perform.

Here are some common conditions which can mimic disk disease symptoms:

OK, let's say your vet has ruled out all of the above conditions and it appears that your Dachshund has true disk problems.  What to do?  First, DO NOT WASTE YOUR MONEY ON X-RAYS.  X-rays done without sedation in a vet's office rarely show a blown, or partially blown, disk.  In my dogs who actually DID have blown disks, these never showed up on x-rays done by my vet even with the dog under sedation.  The only reliable method of determining a blown disk is a myelogram (explained under the surgery section), but this is only done under sedation  just prior to the dog undergoing surgery.

If your dog is showing back pain and is wobbly in the rear, but can still walk and is not dragging a hind leg, your dog probably has a partially blown disk. In this case, immediate surgery or steroid blasting are not required (and can even cause more harm than good), nor are x-rays or a mylegram.  Do not let yourself be talked into expensive surgery at this point.  Give your dog a chance to recover on its own.  Have your vet give your dog a steroid shot like Solu-Medrol, some steroid pills (Medrol) in decreasing dosages for the next 2 weeks, and a muscle relaxer pill like Robaxin.  Tagamet or Carafate in the correct dosage is also very necessary to give prior to each steroid pill to protect the stomach lining.  Remember, never give an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) like Rimadyl or Metacam with steroids - the combination can kill your dog.

Then take your dog home and put it in its crate.  This is where crate training REALLY comes in handy.  Merely confining your dog to the bathroom or a small utility room is totally worthless.  Your dog must be nearly immobilized for at least 6 to 8 weeks.  Yes, I said SIX to EIGHT WEEKS!   It takes at least that long for the leaking disk material to calcify, or harden sufficiently to where it won't move around and cause further damage to the spinal cord (think how long it takes a broken bone to heal - the break must calcify to heal - same principle with leaking disks).  Sometimes it takes as long as 3 months of strict crate rest and several rounds of steroids and Robaxin for the dog to recover completely.  Believe me, it is worth being patient.  I have had 2 Dachshunds, one age 5 and one age 9, who each needed 3 months of complete crate rest to heal.  Both made full recoveries and are fine to this day.

The crate must be only big enough to allow your dog to stand up and turn around, nothing more. The less the spine is allowed to flex or move, the better for healing or recovery.  Hand-carry your dog outside to a very small exercise pen to potty, or keep it on a short leash.  Do not let the dog walk more than 3 feet in any direction while going potty.  Then hand-carry the dog back to its crate as soon as it is finished. If your dog is not used to being crated, try putting the crate in a dark room with a radio playing soothing music.  Ignore the protests.  If your dog is not crate trained or is simply going stir crazy, particularly when it starts to feel better, you may need to get a mild tranquilizer from your vet like Valium to keep your dog quiet for the next 6-8 weeks. This strict, lengthy crate rest is absolutely essential if you want your dog to recover completely and avoid surgery.  Do not give in if your dog starts walking normally within a week or two.  The steroids are making the dog feel good but the disk material has still not calcified.  Also, steroids will make your dog need to pee more often, so make sure the dog's bedding stays clean and dry and take the dog out more often than it normally goes potty.

Most vets do not emphasize the immediate, lengthy crate rest thing right away or fail to mention it at all.  They may tell you to "keep the dog quiet for 10 days".  This is HORRIBLE advice and will more than likely lead to your dog going down completely (becoming totally paralyzed).  Also, a number of vet schools are now teaching their students to avoid steroid use with disk disease.  This does a terrible disservice to Dachshunds and their owners because steroids are necessary to quickly reduce the swelling around the spinal cord and prevent further damage to the nerves leaving the spinal cord.  INSIST on steroid shots and pills.  This is YOUR dog and you want to prevent the possibility of $4,000 of painful surgery if at all possible.

Acupuncture with electrical stimulation is an excellent additional treatment.  I highly recommend it but find a vet who has done it a lot.  Tiny needles attached to wires are inserted along the dog's back, and a small battery pack provides a gentle electrical current to stimulate the muscles.  It helps open up nerve pathways that have been damaged by the bulging or exploding disk material and helps ease back spasms and pain.  It should be done once a week for several weeks to have an optimal effect.

During the next 6-8 weeks, keep a close eye on your dog's wobbly rear.  If it seems like the rear end is getting progressively weaker or your dog starts dragging a hind leg, or the dog suddenly becomes paralyzed, then IMMEDIATE further treatment is needed and the options are discussed below.

Treatment options for paralyzed or partially paralyzed dogs

OK, next scenario.  Let's say your dog is paralyzed in the rear end or partially paralyzed (dragging a rear leg) and your vet has ruled out the other 6 conditions mentioned above that can mimic disk disease.  Complete paralysis due to a blown neck disk is rare but can happen.  More than likely your dog will be paralyzed, or partially paralyzed in the rear end due to a blown thoracic or lumbar disk (anywhere from the middle of the back to the rump).  You now have 3 options - 1) surgery, 2) steroid blasting, or 3) do nothing but give longer crate rest (6 months), acupuncture, and more medication.

1) Surgery:

If you choose to go to surgery to have the disk material removed, you must first remember several things:

Surgery is very expensive and not always successfulI have had surgery done on 3 of my dogs.  One was completely successful and the dog walked normally again although he was never completely paralyzed to begin with.  Two surgeries were much less successful although performed within 3-6 hours of the dogs becoming totally paralyzed.  One dog has about 90% use of one hind leg and about 60% of the other hind leg.  His bowel control is not perfect, either.  The other dog has only about 50% use of each hind leg, cannot wag his tail and has minimal bowel and bladder control. I, personally, will never do surgery again.

Do not feel guilty if you cannot afford surgery or there are no good canine back surgeons near you. There is another option and my personal treatment of choice for paralyzed or partially paralyzed Dachshunds.  It is called steroid blasting.

2) Steroid blasting:

This section is under construction but I wanted the bare bones of this treatment to be available for reference.

This procedure is NOT for dogs who are merely in pain with a wobbly rear, but for dogs who are showing definite signs of paralysis in one or more legs and are candidates for surgery but who, for one reason or another, are not going to have surgery.  One vet in Texas reports that his success rate in treating hundreds of paralyzed or partially paralyzed Dachshunds (mainly rescues) with steroid blasting is around 98%.

Your vet HAS to be willing to take the risk of the high intravenous steroid doses (they are VERY high doses).  The vets who have
done this procedure but have reduced the dosages are seeing poor results.  This procedure requires around-the-clock treatment for 48 hours so my vet usually takes the dog home with him.  Leaving the dog at the vet clinic by itself overnight and resuming treatment in the morning will NOT yield satisfactory results.  Treatment MUST BE CONTINUOUS for 48 hours to be successful.

Also, steroid blasting MUST be done within 12 hours (preferably), or at the most, within 24 hours, of the dog becoming partially or completely paralyzed. Mixed results have been reported on dogs who have been paralyzed for several days, weeks, or months.  However, there are quite a few anecdotal reports of Dachshunds who have been paralyzed for several months regaining most of their mobility immediately following steroid blasting.  It is worth a try to save the dog's life and is not nearly as expensive as surgery ($500-$900 range is typical for steroid blasting, depending on what city you live in and whether or not there are complications).

Here's the actual treatment protocol that your vet will need to have for referal:
The information below came from "Spinal Cord Injuries in Dogs and Cats" by 
Cheryl Chrisman DVM, M.S., Ed.S, ACVIM-Meurology 
University of Florida, College of Veterinary Medicine 

Emergency treatment of spinal cord trauma is aimed at reduction of free radical production, inhibition of lipid peroxidation, and enhancement of spinal cord perfusion.  Intravenous methylprednisolone sodium succinate (Solumedrol - Upjohn Co) or prednisolone sodium succinate (Solu Delta Cortef - Upjohn Co) 30 mg/kg should be given as soon as possible after the injury.  Two and 6 hours later 15 mg/kg is given intravenously and then 2.5 mg/kg per hour for the next 24 hours or longer if no deep pain is present. 

This aggressive glucocorticoid protocol may produce gastrointestinal irritation and ulceration and pancreatitis, so animals must be closely monitored for depression, anorexia, vomiting or melena.  Cimetidine 4 mg/kg and sucralfate 500 mg - 1 gm can be administered orally 2 hours apart every 6-8 hours to help prevent GI disturbances.  If available, a prostaglandin analog misoprostol (cytotec - Searle) 3 mcgm/kg orally every 12 hours should be given in place of the Cimetidine and sucralfate and has a more direct protective effect against GI damage. 

Dexamethasone sodium phosphate and Dexamethasone solution (Azium - Schering) are too slow in onset to provide the rapid neuroprotective effects needed and recommended in spinal cord injuries. 

Warning:  Pancreatitis is the most common complication from steroid blasting!  If your dog starts acting sick and starts vomiting after steroid blasting, RUSH it back to your vet and assume it has developed pancreatitis.  This is a medical emergency.  Do not wait till morning to bring the dog to the vet or you will have a dead, or half-dead, dog.  All steroids must be stopped immediately, all food and water must be withheld for 24 to 48 hours until vomiting has stopped, and the dog must be put on IV fluids.  An anti-vomiting medication like Centrine must be given as well as an antibiotic like Baytril.  Do not let your vet just give the dog a Centrine shot for vomiting and send it home with you.  The dog MUST stay there at the vet hospital on IV fluids and be monitored for at least 24 hours.  Once the dog has recovered from the pancreatitis, it can be put back on oral steroids, a muscle relaxer like Robaxin, a stomach protector like Tagamet or Carafate, and possibly a pain killer like Torbutrol, and sent home.

Following the 48 hours of steroid blasting, and assuming that there have been no complications like pancreatitis, the dog can go home and directly into its crate.  It may have regained some use of its limbs or it may still be paralyzed.  If still paralyzed, make sure your vet shows you how to express the bladder since this will need to be done at least 3 times a day until recovery occurs.  A full course of oral steroids (Medrol) plus a stomach protector (Tagamet and/or Carafate), a muscle relaxer like Robaxin, and possibly pain medication (torbutrol, no NSAIDs like Metacam or Rymadil) should be sent home with the dog.  These are all pills which can be disguised in pieces of string cheese or hotdogs or simply stuffed down the throat.  Total crate rest as described previously will be needed for at least 8 weeks.  This is critical since the pieces of disk material are still floating around near the spinal cord and must be allowed to harden and fuse.  I sometimes will give the dog a week or two off from the oral steroids and then do another round of oral steroids if I don't think the dog is making much progress or still seems uncomfortable.

Acupunture with electrical stimulation should be started within a few days and continued for several weeks.  Exercises like leg bicycles (50 per leg at least 3 times a day with the dog laying on its side or back) can be started right away and towel walking (towel or scarf looped under the belly to hold up the rear end) can be used to help the dog go potty, but swimming exercises should not be attempted for several weeks as it is imperative to keep the spine as immobile as possible at first because the exploded disk material is still floating around in there.

Generally, recovery from steroid blasting takes a little longer than recovery from surgery so be patient.  After 8 weeks of crate rest, the dog can be allowed a little more freedom to start building up muscle mass again if it is walking without pain.  It can be put out in a very small pen (no bigger than 4 ft. by 5 ft.) for a few hours per day or put in a very small room like a bathroom for a few hours a day.  No running, pulling on a leash, or jumping should be allowed for a few more weeks, depending on how the dog is progressing.

Copyright © 2001 Sandra J. Russell.  All rights reserved.

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