- Understanding why your Dachsie may have back problems
- Recognizing and addressing disk disease
- Debating paralysis and quality of life
- Reviewing other common Dachsie health issues
In general, your Dachshund will probably stay pretty healthy throughout most of his life. But every dog can fall prey to an occasional health problem. In this book, I talk a lot about the fallible Dachshund back. Maybe you have a Dachshund that’s already suffering from disk disease, or maybe you’re a little nervous that he could experience back trouble. You are right to worry a little, if worrying will encourage you to take some precautionary measures. Dachshunds do tend to have back problems, and prevention is your best course of action.
Dachsies also tend to experience a few other health problems. Yours probably won’t, but you’ll know what to look for, just in case, after reading this chapter. Here, I discuss everything from back troubles to paralysis to conditions and disorders your Dachshund may have to deal with.
Why Good Backs Go Bad
The title “Why Good Backs Go Bad” is a bit of a misnomer, because many Dachshunds don’t have good backs to start with. Dachshunds are a chondrodystrophic breed (along with a handful of other breeds, like Pekingese, Cocker Spaniels, and Basset Hounds). Any dog — or any human, for that matter — could experience disk disease, but because of the way they’re built and because of the nature of their backbones, Dachshunds are particularly susceptible to canine intervertebral disk disease (sometimes called IVDD or CIDD).
Canine intervertebral disk disease is a serious problem in Dachshunds and other chondrodystrophic dogs. Dachshunds have a disproportionate skeletal structure. They’re unusually short and unusually long, so their backs take on an unusual strain. In addition, their spinal disks are more prone to rupture and degeneration than other breeds. The weakest part of the disks typically is the side nearest the spinal cord. One sudden move, one sharp turn around a corner, or one leap off a bed is sometimes all it takes to cause a disk to rupture and leak — or, in severe cases, burst out of its covering, putting pressure on and injuring the delicate spinal cord.
Approximately one in four Dachshunds experiences a disk problem — most between the ages of 3 and 7, with 4 being the most common age of onset. The following sections dig deeper into Dachsie back issues and present some strategies for prevention.
Understanding your chondrodystrophic canine
Your Dachshund’s spinal column is made up of small bones called vertebrae that surround and protect the spinal cord (see Figure 17-1). His spinal column consists of four primary sections: the cervical spine, or neck area; the thoracic spine, or chest area; the lumbar spine, or lower-back area; and the sacral spine, or pelvic area.
The spinal cord is the information highway of the body, sending messages from the body to the brain about what’s going on in the environment and from the brain back to the body telling the body what to do in response to the environment. In other words, the spinal cord is the link between what you think and what you do. Without it, you can hear a car coming but you can’t jump out of the way. You can burn your hand but can’t remove it from the heat source. You can see something you want but can’t go get it.
Fortunately, spinal columns are very good protectors most of the time. In addition to the hard, bony vertebrae, fibrous, fluid-filled cushions in between each vertebra protect the spinal cord. These cushions are called disks. How do they do their job? They help the spine move more easily. They also reduce shock to the spine and spinal cord by absorbing the various jolts, jerks, twists, and turns all living beings must occasionally experience.
Figure 17-1: The spinal column of a Dachshund.
In some instances, however, a jolt gets through to the spinal cord and injures it or causes a vertebra or disk to break or rupture. A ruptured disk is what happens in CIDD, and as soon as it happens, every second counts. In Dachshunds, the lower spine, or lumbar region, is the most susceptible to back injury. In fact, five single disks are responsible for 99 percent of ruptures in Dachshunds.
Spinal cords can’t take much pressure. A ruptured disk that presses on the cord can quickly cause lasting damage. If the spinal cord can’t receive blood, oxygen, and glucose, it will eventually die. And if the spinal cord dies, information can’t move from the brain to the body or back again.
If a disk herniates, or bulges out from between the vertebrae, the severity is classified into Type I and Type II:
– In a Type I herniation, the disk tears and the inner matter, called the nucleus, leaks out. This type of herniation is most common in chondrodystrophic breeds such as Dachshunds, and it’s a medical emergency. The leaking nuclear material can put damaging pressure on the spinal cord, and if the damage is too severe, your Dachshund may become permanently paralyzed. Emergency surgery — preferably within the first 12 hours after the injury (and up to 24 hours after) — often is successful in restoring function, although it doesn’t come with a guarantee.
– Type II herniation is less severe. The disk develops small tears that allow small amounts of nuclear material to escape, causing the disk to bulge and press on the spinal cord. This herniation can develop gradually and may be less obvious until it becomes severe. It’s common in degenerating disks and can lead to gradual paralysis. Type II can also be treated surgically, but some people prefer to keep their pets confined so the disk can heal itself. Type II ruptures typically manifest as back pain and respond well to medical therapy and cage rest, but they eventually recur.
Type II herniations can be dangerous for several reasons, however. Too much bulging can cut off nutrients to the spinal column, causing it to die a slow but permanent death. Also, the Dachshund’s body could interpret leaking nuclear material as a foreign invader. In some dogs, the immune system will attack, causing further damage to the spinal cord.
Preventing disk injury
Can you prevent CIDD in your Dachshund? Maybe. Some dogs will probably get it no matter what. Others may have a tendency to get it but won’t. Still others may have no tendency at all, so the first and best method of prevention is to find a Dachshund that isn’t prone to CIDD.
The problem is, no one can tell for sure which Dachshunds are prone and which ones will stay clear. Scientists do know that CIDD is genetic, however, so a great prevention method is to purchase a Dachshund with little or no CIDD in his family history. Ask a prospective breeder about the occurrence of CIDD in his or her lines (see Chapter May the Best Breeder Win: Finding the Dachshund for You
to find a reputable breeder who will be honest).
Most seasoned and reputable breeders have experienced CIDD at some point, so be wary of a breeder who says he’s never seen it. You’re looking for honest answers. Any good breeder knows not to breed a Dachshund with CIDD, but because the disease usually shows up at around 4 years of age, a Dachshund could’ve been bred several times before the disease manifests. The puppies of that dog, of course, shouldn’t be bred.
Through hard work and careful planning, some breeders have virtually eliminated CIDD from their lines, and these are the ones to look for. Your worst bets?
– A breeder who won’t show you the parents (maybe one or both are paralyzed).
– A pet store, because many of these dogs are bred with no thought to eliminating conditions like CIDD, and you don’t get to see the parents.
– A shelter or humane society, because you can’t possibly know the Dachshund’s background.
That’s not to say you should never adopt a needy Dachshund from a shelter or humane society. You should, however, be aware that the dog’s risk of developing CIDD may be higher than average (see Chapter Rescue Me! Adopting a Dachshund
Aside from choosing the right breeder, you can do a few more things to prevent CIDD from crashing into your world:
– Choose a Dachshund that isn’t so dramatically short and long. The longer the back, the more strained it will be by any movement. An international humane organization called the Council of Europe is encouraging European breeders to breed for taller dogs with shorter backs. The Germans recently revised their standard accordingly, and many breeders in the United States are following suit — breeding for less extreme dimensions in order to ensure healthier, stronger backs.
– Keep your Dachshund at a healthy weight. Obesity puts a huge strain on your Dachshund’s back (see Chapter Purchasing Your Dachshund Essentials).
– Keep your Dachshund from engaging in any sharp twisting movements, jumping from high places, or running around sharp turns. Avoid tricks that teach your Dachshund to beg on his hind legs or do anything else that puts his spine in a vertical position. Walks are great and exercise is great, but try to keep your Dachshund’s back relatively straight when he’s in motion (easier said than done, I know, but you must try).
Keep your Dachshund horizontal whenever possible, even when picking him up. Place one hand under his chest and the other under his abdomen or back legs. Lift him carefully, keeping him level, and hold him in your arms with his spine parallel to the floor. Never hold your Dachshund vertically or let his back end swing from your arms. Teach children in your household how to lift and hold your Dachshund, too. However, younger children should never lift a Dachshund and should play with your Dachsie only while sitting on the floor. (See Chapter Dachs-Proofing Your Family for more on teaching family members how to live with a Dachsie.)
Treating Disk Disease
Sometimes, despite all the preventive measures in the world, a Dachshund will suffer a disk herniation. If yours does, you must know what to do, and you must do it fast. However, you can’t do anything if you don’t know that your Dachshund is having a problem in the first place. The following sections explain the signs and what you can do to act.
Recognizing the warning signs
Dogs have high pain thresholds and an instinct not to reveal when they’re in pain. After all, in the wild, the obviously injured animal is the one that gets picked off by the predators. But if you pay attention, you can tell whether your Dachshund is in pain. Look for the following signs:
– Shivering — especially when combined with unusual inactivity
– Refusal to get up and play, even for food
– A yelp when you pet your Dachshund or try to pick him up
– A pulled-in head, arched back, or any other strange position
– A refusal to bend down to the food or water dish to eat or drink
– Limping of any kind
– A “drunken” rear end, which moves but looks as if it isn’t completely under control
– Dragging of the back legs
Taking emergency measures
If your Dachshund shows any of the warning signs from the previous section, call your vet immediately. In the case of dragging the back legs or showing any other signs of paralysis or severe pain, drive immediately to the vet’s office or nearest pet emergency facility. Don’t wait. You can call on the way.
I’ve talked to people whose Dachshunds showed signs of trouble on Friday but they decided to wait until Monday to act because their vets’ offices were closed. Several of them now have paralyzed pets. I’ve also talked to someone — a reader of the first edition of this book, in fact — who took her Dachshund to the emergency vet clinic on a Saturday, even though her regular vet was closed, just because she read this chapter. Her Dachshund underwent surgery and now has four fully functioning limbs!
Save the leaves (er, your Dachsie’s mobility)!
Darryl E. McDonald, DVM — a veterinary neurosurgeon at the Dallas Veterinary Surgical Center in Dallas, Texas — has performed hundreds of disk surgeries on Dachshunds. He likes to describe the urgency of surgery with the following analogy: “When a disk ruptures and damages the spinal cord, it is analagous to a houseplant that has not been watered for three weeks. It loses half its leaves. So what do you do? You water it! If you don’t, it will die. Similarly, surgery is needed to remove the spinal cord pressure. The longer you wait, the more ‘leaves’ are lost and the less likely your Dachshund will recover.”
In short, you have just hours to act. Immediate surgery on a Dachshund with a Type I ruptured disk has a much better success rate than a similar surgery on a human. For Dachshunds still feeling pain (a good sign that the spinal cord is still functioning), the success rate for restoring function is 95 percent. The success rate is 50 percent for Dachshunds experiencing total paralysis, as long as the dog was feeling pain within the last 24 hours. But if you wait longer than 24 hours after a disk injury, the success rate plummets to a meager 5 percent. If that isn’t reason enough to rush your injured Dachsie to treatment, nothing is.
Opting for surgery
Some Dachshund people are anti-surgery, but be advised: Most vets agree that surgery is the quickest and safest route to recovery in the case of a Type I disk herniation. It’s a pricey, sure. But many, many Dachshund owners have paid that price and would do it again if they had to. (And a few have done it again when their Dachshunds had more than one disk herniation.)
Surgery is often, very often, successful — if done within 12 to 24 hours. Surgery has a much quicker recovery time than crate rest. And because the pressure is immediately relieved on the spinal cord, the real danger is over. Your vet still may call for a short period of post-surgery crate rest, which you should observe. After that, however, your Dachshund will probably be, for the most part, back to normal.
Don’t be too quick to take your Dachshund running again, though. Don’t ignore follow-up visits or the prescribed physical therapy. Your vet or veterinary surgeon can show you what to do with your Dachshund to help him regain his strength and the use of his legs. Exercises are extremely important to help your Dachshund recover.
The downsides to surgery, other than the high price tag, are the risk to your Dachshund of enduring a general anesthetic (a small but real risk) and the risk that the surgery won’t be successful (a very small risk when the surgery is performed by an experienced, board-certified veterinary surgeon within 24 hours after the injury). If surgery is unsuccessful, your Dachshund may be paralyzed anyway or may continue to suffer pain.
If your Dachshund needs back surgery, you can’t just take him to your veterinarian’s office. The surgery is complicated and requires the experienced hand of a veterinary neurosurgeon or a veterinary surgeon with an emphasis in orthopedics. If you don’t have a veterinary hospital in your area that specializes in back surgery — or at least one that has a surgeon with a lot of relevant experience — check out your nearest school of veterinary medicine. Chances are, the school will be associated with someone who’s experienced at back surgery in dogs. The better the surgeon, the better your Dachshund’s chances at recovery. No matter the distance, it will be worth the trip.
“Waaait a minute,” you may be thinking. “Just how much is this surgery going to cost me?” That depends on where you live and where you take your Dachshund, but the all-inclusive charges probably will range from $800 to over $2,000 (most are probably close to $1,500). For many Dachshund owners, surgery isn’t an affordable option, so is surgery your only choice when your Dachshund’s disks go bad?
No, although for severe episodes, it has the highest success rate — by a long shot. The other option is the one used more frequently for Type II herniations (see the earlier section “Understanding your chondrodystrophic canine”). In Dachshund circles, it’s known as crate-and-wait, or crate rest. Crate rest means confining your Dachshund to his den for an extended period of time — usually between two and four weeks. Three or four times per day, you take your Dachshund out to relieve himself and then you immediately return him to his den.
Insuring your dachshund
Could pet insurance be for you? If you buy pet insurance for your Dachshund puppy before he ever has any health problems and he develops disk disease, your foresight could pay off in spades. But if you wait until your dog is full-grown and he has a disk episode, it becomes a pre-existing condition, making it too late to get insurance that would cover disk surgery. Of course, you hope that your dog won’t ever have a problem. I hope so, too! But pet insurance may be a smart bargain, just in case. And even if your dog stays healthy, pet insurance could help offset the cost of regular checkups and other health maintenance (depending on the kind of plan you choose).
Put Pet Insurance into an Internet search engine to compare various plans. And if you register your purebred Dachshund with the American Kennel Club, you get a free 60-day trial of pet insurance!
At first, crate rest is easy. Your Dachshund is in pain, and he probably doesn’t want to move. But by the second or third day — especially if your vet has prescribed steroids or pain medication — your Dachshund is feeling a whole lot better and is getting mighty tired of that den. He wants to get out! He’ll probably whine, cry, scratch, dig at the sides, and do anything he can think of to convince you to let him out.
Keeping your Dachsie confined won’t be easy, but it is essential. I repeat: essential. A medicated Dachshund is still extremely vulnerable to spinal cord injury. That injured disk is still soft, still ruptured, and perhaps still oozing nuclear material. Movement could cause permanent damage, and if he isn’t feeling the pain due to medication, he’ll be much more likely to move in ways he shouldn’t. If you don’t allow his spinal disks adequate healing time, he could easily wind up losing the use of his back legs. Keeping him in the den, no matter how much he begs (remember, you are in charge), gives him a far better chance of a full and glorious recovery.
Physical therapy is great for Dachshunds recovering from surgery and for post-crate-rest Dachshunds working to restore lost function. Commonly prescribed activities include
– Swimming in the bathtub (never leave your Dachshund unsupervised because if his legs don’t work correctly when he needs them, he could drown)
– Towel walking, in which you hold up your dog’s rear end with a towel sling draped under his abdomen
– Bicycling your Dachshund’s limbs to exercise his full range of motion
– Massaging the affected areas
Also check out a unique invention called the Bottom’s Up Leash (www.bottomsupleash.com
). This leash holds up a weak or paralyzed rear end so your Dachshund can still go on walks with you while recuperating.
Preventive surgery: The debate
In some Dachshunds, back injury looks imminent. X-rays can reveal calcifications to the spine that may indicate impending disk trouble. For dogs with one or more parents that suffered, disk disease is likely. And what about the Dachshund that has already suffered one episode? Do you want him to endure surgery a second time?
More and more often, veterinary surgeons are performing a preventive surgery called fenestration. This procedure essentially drains the spinal disks of fluid to prevent any possible future herniation or rupture. Many vets agree that preventive fenestration can not only prevent a first or second disk episode from occurring, but also dramatically relieve the pain and discomfort of degenerating disks as your Dachshund ages.
The surgery isn’t without risks, however. A surgery gone wrong can injure a healthy spinal cord. Recovery can be painful, too.
However, a new, experimental technique called laser disk fenestration shows great promise as a safer alternative with an easier recovery. Be sure to talk to your doctors about this option.
Other complications include a reaction to the anesthesia or a postsurgical infection, although these complications aren’t very common. Your Dachshund could also suffer from arthritis later in life because his disks won’t work to ease the friction between vertebrae.
In general, a normal, healthy Dachshund has no cause to undergo preventive fenestration. It’s definitely something to consider, however, if your Dachshund is already undergoing surgery to prevent a second incident. The surgeon would fenestrate the afflicted disk as well as disks in the surrounding area. Or, if genetic or other factors make rupture particularly likely, fenestration may be a good idea. Your vet can help you evaluate the benefits and risks.
Five specific disks account for about 99 percent of disk ruptures in Dachshunds, so these five are commonly fenestrated during surgery for a ruptured disk or as a preventive.
Living with Paralysis: Is It a Quality Life?
For some Dachshunds, no matter what preventive measures have been taken, paralysis becomes an unfortunate reality. You love your pet dearly. Does paralysis really necessitate euthanasia?
This is a question many Dachshund owners struggle with, and strong opinions exist on both sides. A paraplegic Dachshund can still get around, with some help, but also requires more care than a fully functional Dachshund. Are you up for it?
You may think you can’t put your Dachshund through it: the surgery, the pain, the crate rest, the suffering, and so on. This is (arguably) the least viable reason for having your Dachshund put down, however. Dogs don’t have all the complicated emotional associations we do when it comes to pain and paralysis. If they can recover and live free of pain, even if paralyzed, they’ll be perfectly happy — as long as they can be with you.
Many, many people have chosen to live with their paralyzed Dachsies and wouldn’t have it any other way. These dogs are still capable of great love, affection, and good health apart from their paralysis. Some paralyzed Dachsies even recover full or partial use of their legs long after their owners had abandoned all hope that they would ever walk again. Many other people, on the other hand, have chosen euthanasia for their pets, for one reason or another — the desire to avoid suffering for the pet or the owners, lack of knowledge, inability to care for a paralyzed pet, and/or cost of the procedure, to name a few.
The choice, obviously, is up to you and your family. A paralyzed Dachshund and his people must endure certain challenges, even after the pain is gone. For example, he won’t have bladder or bowel control and can be more susceptible to bladder infections, urine scalding (getting burned by the acid urine), and pressure sores from sitting in one place for a long time.
But remember, to a Dachshund, quality of life means a good meal, a pat on the head, and you by his side. He doesn’t know to be embarrassed by lack of bladder control (although he will know something is very wrong if you are constantly upset because of this or other associated conditions). He doesn’t care if he can’t walk across the room to get his favorite ball. He’ll be perfectly happy to have you do the fetching!
Of course, if your Dachshund continues to be in pain, euthanasia may be the only humane option. But if the pain resolves, your Dachshund, with your help, can find a way to have a perfectly satisfactory, rewarding life. One Dachshund owner I know said it best: If that Dachshund spirit returns, your dog is telling you he has quality of life. Period. If you’re struggling with the euthanasia decision, let your Dachshund tell you what to do and don’t listen to anyone else. Sometimes, humans have awfully funny ideas about things.
Life with a paralyzed Dachsie is challenging but rewarding, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes filled with joy, but always an adventure. May you and your special Dachshund have many more happy years together.
Can’t bear to look at that poor, pitiful dog with his legs dragging behind him? Carts are available for paralyzed dogs, and these wheeled contraptions allow paraplegic Dachshunds to get around quite nicely. Your Dachshund doesn’t know the meaning of the word pitiful. He’ll adapt, learning to pull himself with his front feet. Some tasks are more difficult, but what Dachshund isn’t up for a challenge?
Considering Other Dachsie Health Issues
Because I’ve spent most of this chapter on it, back problems obviously are a Dachshund’s number-one health concern. But Dachshunds can develop a few other health issues, as well. The following sections tell you what symptoms to look for and what warrants a call to the vet.
Bloat, or gastric torsion, is an emergency condition that happens most often to deep-chested breeds like Dachshunds. For unknown reasons, the stomach fills with gas and then twists on itself. Without treatment, bloat is fatal. If your Dachshund suddenly starts pacing, salivating, and acting upset, nervous, or in pain — or it just seems like something is very wrong — suspect bloat. Call your vet immediately. Emergency surgery could save your dog’s life.
Some experts theorize that you can prevent bloat by keeping a dog from eating too quickly or from drinking too much water right after a meal. To reduce the chance of a bloat incident, some recommend feeding two or three meals per day rather than one. This helps your Dachshund to be less hungry and less likely to gulp down his food. Preventing eating and drinking too fast immediately before or after exercise may also help, although nobody knows for sure.
Canine epilepsy, a seizure disorder, happens in some Dachshunds, and nobody is sure why. If your Dachshund suddenly goes stiff, starts shaking, or becomes completely non-responsive or totally limp, suspect a seizure. Call your vet immediately. You can’t prevent epilepsy, but it is treatable with medication.
Hypothyroidism is a thyroid gland disorder in which the thyroid doesn’t secrete enough of its hormone, slowing a dog’s metabolism and resulting in weight gain, fatigue, sluggish behavior, dry skin, hair loss, and severe behavioral changes — ranging from aggression to depression. If your Dachshund exhibits these symptoms, call your vet for an appointment. Dachshunds, along with many other breeds, are particularly prone to hypothyroidism. Most dogs develop the disease in middle age. It can be successfully treated with a synthetic thyroid hormone, just like humans with the same disease.
If you have a hypothyroid condition, you may be surprised to find that your little Dachsie friend takes as much or more thyroid medication than you do. Dachshunds need more than humans per pound to manage their condition.
Progressive retinal atrophy
Some Dachshunds will develop progressive retinal atrophy, a degenerative eye disease that eventually results in blindness. The disease isn’t painful and sometimes has no symptoms until the dog is almost completely blind; however, some dogs will show reluctance to go down stairs or go into dark areas (night blindness can be an initial stage of the disease). In some dogs, the eye lens looks more opaque or cloudy, but this isn’t always the case.
In particular, longhaired Miniature Dachshunds may be prone to PRA. The good news is, a DNA test can pinpoint whether a Miniature longhaired Dachshund is a carrier for PRA, so breeders who do this test should be able to make smarter breeding decisions. Be sure to ask your breeder whether he or she tests breeding dogs for PRA.
If your breeder would like to know more about this new DNA test for PRA, send him or her here: www.dachshund-dca.org/health.html.
After a dog develops progressive retinal atrophy, no treatment can reverse it. However, blind dogs can live a happy life, with a little extra care.
Some Dachshunds have skin problems that a veterinarian will diagnose as allergies — possibly to environmental contacts and inhalants or food. (Many pet owners think their pets have food allergies, but true food allergies account for only about 5 percent of allergic skin problems.) Allergies usually show up in the form of rashes, itchy sores, and plenty of scratching. A switch to a higher quality food with a single protein source (like lamb, fish, or venison) helps some dogs — not only with food allergies but also with lessening the severity of environmental contacts and inhalant allergies. It also boosts overall health. Be sure to consult your vet if your Dachsie shows symptoms.
A recent study suggests that Dachshunds may also be prone to vaccine-induced allergies. This ongoing study at Purdue University is exploring the link. If your Dachshund seems to be having a reaction after a vaccination, call your vet right away. For more information and updates on this study, look here: www.dachshund-dca.org/allergystudy5.07.html
by Eve Adamson