We have these weeks where the storm clouds swirl above you and the seas rise around you and your boat gets rocked hard. It is in the middle of the looming disaster that you test your abilities, and truly get a sense of where your strengths lie and where the weaknesses are cracking your hull. There was a time a few years ago where we literally did 12 splenectomies in a 2 month period. Before that first splenectomy I had been out of vet school for two years and not seen one. In the four years since I haven’t seen 2. So weird, but completely true.
In the last week we have seen two dogs with acute intervertebral disc disease cases. I thought their cases would be a good story to help you understand this disease and how easily an outcome can sway in the balance.
Today is Wednesday the 21st of September. It is the day that Porter had the disc that was putting pressure on his spinal cord at Lumbar vertebrae 2 and 3 removed. The intervertebral disc in the spine can best be described like a jelly filled donut. Those little jelly filled donuts are the pillows between the vertebrae that protect your lifeline; the spinal cord. The bones that makes up the vertebrae, (your backbone), are like the cars of a train. Once one of those cars gets loose in the track the rest of the cars are more vulnerable. It is an amazing framework of engineering, but one small problem has devastating consequences. If you injure your back to the point that the jelly is extruded from the donut the jelly can only go into your spinal cord space. Any tiny amount of jelly in this very narrow place is painful and causes pressure and damage to the very sensitive electric wires that are your spinal cord. Too much pressure for too long causes paralysis of these fibers and then the messages your brain is trying to send to the body get slowed down or stop completely. It’s like losing your power to your house because a tree fell on the electric lines between the power plant (your brain) and your house (or say your leg). IVDD (intervertebral disc disease) is common in the dogs with the long backs. The most common dogs we see suffering from this disease are the dachshunds. I also see it a lot in beagles. The obese dogs seem to also have weaker backs.
In some cases we see this disease as a result of dogs playing to hard, or from trauma, like being hit by a car. And in some cases it just creeps in slowly and silently and persistently. Clients will walk in with their pet complaining of not wanting to walk up or down stairs, or not wanting to jump up on the bed, or not able to urinate or defecate. Sometimes it is that they aren’t eating. All of these complaints areyour dog telling you that they are in pain. I have had owners tell me that they think their dog has a belly ache because when they tried to pick them up they screamed. A dog with a “slipped disc” is painful. Sometimes they are painful everywhere, sometimes they are very good at hiding their pain. There have been a few patients that make me have to search hard to get them to elicit where their sore spot is. IVDD can happen in the neck (cervical) or lower back (lumbar). When it happens in the neck I see these dogs reluctant to walk, unwilling to move their head, (think whiplash) and then scream in pain when you try to move their head while holding the rest of them still. Sometimes we also see the four legs not responding normally to basic functions. A dog with lumbar disc disease will not want to jump, or walk up or down stairs, or not wanting to get their butt off the ground. In the end stages of this disease the disc cuts off the spinal cords ability to talk to the limbs ability to ambulate (move), and the body’s ability to urinate or defecate voluntarily.
The tale of Porter and Daymin is about lumbar IVDD.
On Thursday the 15th of September Daymin was brought to the clinic to be evaluated. His chart read simply, “Exam, can’t get up, has $ issues.” That was written by the receptionist as was stated by the client to them at check-in. The technician then wrote the following; “ owner thought he was constipated, so they gave him an enema. Was fine, normal, all day, sat back, then fell over, urinating on himself.” I was not the vet that Daymin saw that day, but as I read his chart I am once again dumbfounded how many times clients think that their pets are constipated. I know that I shouldn’t make these broad sweeping general statements, but here I go.., “People! Dogs are hardly ever constipated!” As I think back, I have only ever seen one or two constipated dogs. (Now constipation in cats is a real problem, so my statement doesn’t apply to cats!) Perhaps constipation is a big problem in people?, so that’s why they think their dog is constipated? I don’t know? But darn it, don’t give anyone an enema without a Dr’s ok. Enemas can cause big big problems. The veterinarian who saw Daymin stated in her physical examination findings that Daymin was panting, painful, and unable to use his hind legs. Daymin was also very obese. Daymin is a Labrador Retriever and these guys don't typically get this disease, BUT, the fat ones are all susceptible. He had urine and feces on his hind end. The owners had enough money to run blood work and take x-rays. After these were run his preliminary diagnosis was IVDD. Based on the severity of his clinical signs the veterinarian recommended he immediately be sent to a veterinary neurologist specialist. Based on the cost (estimates range from 1700-8000+) the owners declined and sought conservative medical treatment. Based on my experience if deep pain is still present in their back legs (a test your vet will check) and strict cage rest for 8 weeks I would say that 40 to 50% of patients will have a return to function. For dogs without deep pain present this conservative approach has a poorer prognosis, and little chance of return to function. (When I say return to function I mean able to ambulate on four legs.) If the disc material can be taken out quickly the spinal cord can heal and I have seen many dogs go down (paralysis) and be looking normal a few weeks later. Daymin was given a barrage of medicines to try to stop the swelling, protect his stomach from the steroids he was being given, pain relief medications (opioids are the only thing with any chance of relieving this kind of pain) and strict orders to bring him back tomorrow for a re-check.
On the 16th Daymin was dropped off for the day for us to observe him. his medical record stated; “able to sit up, ate a little, unable to support his weight. No proprioception in the back legs, (this is a test that we do to see if his feet can talk to his brain and then his brain tell his feet that they are in the wrong position to stand). Does have superficial and deep pain present (this means his feet can feel a tickle and a hard pinch, or the nerves in the feet feel a sensation and tell the brain that they can feel something. Deep pain is one of the most primitive functions and the last thing the nerves let go of). When this is gone there is complete paralysis and without relieving the cause little hope the nerves will talk to the leg again. At the end of the day his progress report read “eating and drinking normally, leaking urine, but seems more comfortable.” The owners were given directions to keep him in a small confined enclosure, continue the treatment plan provided the day before, re-check on Monday, or sooner if worsens, owner was told there is a 50% chance of recovery. Owner declined referral to neurologist.”
9/19 entry, “patient here for observation, seems painful. Unable to support weight on hind legs, no superficial or deep pain. Prognosis poor.” Daymin was not getting better and he needed a neurologist. The owner also gave the Vet a handwritten letter. Dr. E held the letter up to me and gave me her “I don’t know what to do about this, and the guilt is crippling me” look. She summarized that the letter was written to her, because they liked her and trusted her. “Dear Dr. Daymin did good over the weekend, he peed and pooped and we kept him clean, like you asked us to. He drug himself around with his front legs. I’m not asking you, I’m literally begging you to please see if you think acupuncture is worth a shot. I just don’t wanna give up yet…please let’s just try a little longer. Please. Thank you..” I don’t know how the acupuncture thought came into play, but this poor dog was waaay beyond the point of this helping. I am a big supporter of alternative therapies but he needed emergency veterinary care NOW!
Daymin stayed in his cage heavily medicated all day. At the end of the day the owner sent two friends to come pick Daymin up. The owner had made an appointment at the neurologists on Wednesday. He would have to wait until then. When we tried to move Daymin out of his cage he tried to bite the technicians, he also urinated and defected everywhere, despite being medicated, having a morphine patch on, and really no sensation to his whole back half he was in excruciating pain. I went outside to the friends of the owner here to pick him up and explained just how bad Daymin was. Medical management was not working in spite of every effort to provide him relief. His suffering was too great and I knew it wasn’t fair to him to wait and get even worse. The owner elected to euthanize him. it is a hard terrible thing to put down a sweet dog who may have had another outcome if the expense wasn’t so great. I am in no way trying to pass judgement or assume that his outcome may have been different. It may not have regardless of finances or circumstances. There are many cases whose outcomes are decided by some intangible force no vet, no human, and no amount of money will change. It is the lesson your learn in medicine if you stick around long enough to not grow frustrated or indifferent no matter how hard you pray and want a patient to walk out with a "happily ever after."
|Porter and I at Jarrettsville Vets Pets with Santa 2013|
The next day he was examined by a Veterinary Neurologist and then was given an MRI which confirmed everyone’s suspicions. He has ruptured a lumbar disc. He immediately went into surgery. In the 48 hours between him being reluctant to walk up the stairs, he lost deep pain in his back legs. It was the worst case scenario. Luckily for Porter he received all of the care he needed in almost the shortest time possible. He is recovering at the neurologists over the weekend, but so far he is eating, comfortable, and has regained some sensation in his back feet.
I expect, and hope for, Porters full recovery. I will keep you all posted. His final bill will be somewhere in the range of $7000. I jokingly told his mom that they can check off the box that says “Most expensive thing that can happen to your dog”, box now.
Here are some post-op pictures of Porter with his mom giving him his post-op PT.He is doing great! He is a strong, determined, stubborn dog, and I have no doubt he will make a full recovery.
My expert general practitioner advice is to have pet insurance, especially for the predisposed IVDD breeds like dachshunds, Shih Tzus, and beagles. IVDD is uncommon in other breeds as long as they maintain an optimal weight and refrain from dare devil activities.
For anyone in a financial predicament DO NOT GIVE UP ON YOUR DOG! Follow the vets conservative management guidelines. The most important of which is;
- ABSOLUTE CRATE/CAGE REST FOR 4-8 WEEKS.
- Leash walk only to go to the bathroom.
- Use the pain medications prescribed.
- Don't freak out in the first 3-5 days. They are the worst, but, things will get better.
- Monitor for eating, drinking, urination, defecation. Call the vet with questions. You will need a helping experienced hand. They can help.
- Be strong, be brave, have faith, and try. Your pet is an amazing soul who can beat almost the most impossible of things, IF, you give them a chance and a helping hand of love.
If you would like to learn more about IVDD please see the links below;
The leading source for IVDD help online; Dodgerslist.com
IVDD. Getting a diagnosis. What to do once you have it and associated costs with each option. Encouragement for the first few days (hardest days) after the diagnosis is made.
Update; Porter did very well with his slight stagger, and somewhat torticollis-sway back stagger for his remaining 4 years! He needed carpet to help him keep his feet from slipping, and he could not climb up stairs, but he never seemed to be in pain or distress and loved his walks with his mom up until his last days at the end of 2015. He lived to be 19. He will always be missed.
In an ideal world resources, financial stability, and access to experts is reality. For the rest of us lean on your vet, get help where possible, follow directions explicitly, and be patient. There is the other side of this disease, and many pets will shock you at their degree of recovery. I never, ever give up on a disc disease pet. It may be hard to watch, difficult to manage and heart wrenching, but it will pass, and most will dramatically improve IF you can get through the first few days.
If you have a question about your dog with IVDD please find me on Pawbly.com. I am happy to offer assistance and encouragement. Pawbly is free to use and open to all pet lovers across the globe.
If you have a pet that you would like me to see you can find me at Jarrettsville Vet in Harford County Maryland.
I am also on Twitter @FreePetAdvice, and I have a YouTube channel with lots of helpful videos.