Canine Spines in Crisis ... Will the Dread of Them Never Cease?
Apparently, as long as I continue to share a household with Frenchies, I am doomed to living with spinal diseases. Love though I might the breed’s verve and goofiness, I'll be damned if I don’t feel like deadpanning Britney’s famous refrain for the sake of this crummy topic. "Oops, I did it again."
Almost three years back it was Sophie Sue’s spine on the chopping block. It was her neck that was the problem. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2007, she spent nearly every day hunched in some degree of pain. Try as I might with all kinds of pain-relieving cocktails, I couldn’t manage her comfort.
Which is why it was finally agreed (after much coaxing by the surgeon — my significant other) that she’d be "imaged." That meant a fancy CT scan and/or special radiographic studies and the possibility of surgery.
As it turned out, despite a rough initial recovery period we later attributed to the myelogram (a contrast study we sometimes use to highlight the spinal canal), Sophie healed beautifully after having the extruded material from two "monster discs" removed from atop her spine. The extrudate had been causing significant pain to her squinched nerves, but left enough room so that the nerves never stopped conducting impulses normally from her brain and back to her limbs. Sophie was 100 percent pain-free in less than a week.
Sadly, she was diagnosed with brain cancer less than six months later. The good news is that she lived a very orthopedically comfortable 18 months after her spinal surgery.
Fast-forward two years and nine months and here we are again … with four year-old Vincent. But this time it’s not so much to do with pain. And we don’t even know if there are bad discs involved. What we do know is that after a couple of brief episodes of acute pain, he’s very, very slowly losing the ability to ambulate like a normal dog.
His back legs often can’t get him onto the perch of his choice when he tries to jump (which I now don’t allow him to do most of the time). His hind limbs sometimes cross over when he walks. His hind feet might knuckle over when he sits. He’s adopted a goofy, swaying trot-like gait. A dead run is a thing to watch as his back legs scrabble twice as fast when they fail to gain purchase, seeing as their location is all scrambled up in his brain.
It sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? Yet if you didn’t know what to look for, you’d be hard-pressed to put a finger on what was going on. In fact, most Vincent-watchers need to be told what to look for since the signs are still relatively subtle.
Though we don’t yet know the exact cause in Vincent’s case, what’s happening here is almost certainly related to Sophie Sue’s condition. Something is pressing on the spinal cord, that bundle of nerves that runs aong the spine, causing severe, unrelenting pain in some cases and decreased nerve conduction in others. Most dogs suffer both, though their proportions and timing will vary.
The potential causes are many, but by far the most common spinal disease in all dogs is the one Sophie Sue suffered from: intervertebral disc disease. Here’s my description, sourced from the genetic disease library I helped write for Embrace Pet Insurance:
[Intervertebral disc disease (or IVDD)] occurs in chondrodystrophic (dwarfed) breeds of dogs whose normal cartilage development has been tinkered with genetically for the purposes of a short, stout appearance. In these cases the degeneration of the disc material occurs essentially as a result of a cartilage deformity.
Hence, why dachshunds, Cavaliers and French bulldogs suffer so many "slipped discs" relative to other breeds of dogs. No, it’s not the "long back" issue in doxies so much as it is the propensity for degeneration as a result of the cartilage deformity these breeds have.
But Vincent’s trouble may be different. In his case, spinal hemivertebrae ("butterflied vertebrae") may be the cause. These malformed vertebral segments are the result of the same genes that cause the corkscrew tail in bully breeds. Problem is, sometimes these genes manage to get themselves expressed in the middle of the spine, too. And since they’re abnormally shaped, sometimes it means the spinal canal gets tight in those hemivertebrae spots. Tight = spinal cord compression.
These are the two most likely scenarios for my beloved Vincent. And either way, the solution is almost certainly the same: surgery.
To that end, he’s on the schedule for a CT scan tomorrow morning. I promise I’ll be back to update you on our findings and his progress. For now, just wish us luck!
Dr. Patty Khuly
Pic of the day: "Vincent says, 'My mom's been playing with her artsy iPhone apps again. But don't I look cute in my seatbelt?'" by me