Low-riding dogs and rearview mirrors

June 23, 2013

As I was driving to work one morning I noticed a police car in my rearview mirror. Why did my heartbeat just a little bit faster? Why is it that I had a heightened awareness of the traffic laws at that moment? There were no flashing lights or sirens as I must not have been breaking any laws. Drivers in a policeman’s path will slow down, use their turn signals, come to a complete stop at stop signs and never pick up their cell phones. These are all things that we are supposed to do anyway as responsible drivers.

This experience got me thinking. I wonder if people have the same reaction when their veterinarian is examining their pet and asking questions about their pet’s healthcare and medications?

As a policeman cares about upholding traffic laws. A veterinarian cares about pet health. Would it make it easier to remember to give your dog their heartworm preventative once a month if veterinarians patrolled the neighborhood? Would people clean their cat’s litterboxes daily if we gave them tickets if they didn’t? Would people not forget to give the full course of antibiotics to their pet if there was a fine for leftover pills?

Owner compliance is a major concern when it comes to several animal diseases. As pet owners it is our responsibility to follow through with the recommendations and especially medications prescribed by our veterinarians. Our pets are unable to medicate themselves and rely on us for not only resources like food, water and shelter, but also basic medical care. If we fail to follow veterinary medical advice we are not the ones who suffer for it.

The detrimental effects of one disease that could be reduced, if more dog owners were aware of the condition, is Intervertebral Disk Disease. This is a progressive spinal disease that can acutely paralyze a dog. The worst cases oftentimes mean expensive surgery, or worse, euthanasia.

The most common dogs to get this disease are long-backed dogs such as dachshunds. The reason is simple — they are disproportionate. Dachshunds have the same number of backbones as a mastiff, but have them stretched out over their shortened stature. Dachshunds’ little legs and long torso made them great for chasing after badgers in tunnels and also makes them particularly adorable looking today. However, the longer the back, the more motion they tend to have along the spaces of their spine.

Each backbone, or vertebra, has a cushioning disk between it and the next vertebra in line. These cushioning disks, or intervertebral disks, are made of cartilage. The more motion and force applied over time on these disks can accelerate hardening of the central part of the cartilage and a weakening of the outer cartilage. This can become a problem as it may cause a “blown disk.” The hardened cartilage center shoots straight upward toward the spinal cord causing nerve damage and resulting in paralysis and other serious symptoms.

If you are familiar with these low-riding dogs then you know that they are usually quite energetic and limber as young pups. They have a knack for jumping off of furniture and bounding around the house with little regard as to the future of their spinal column. This is when we should step in and modify that behavior so that it does not become a habit. This can seem impossible but there are several things that we can implement early on to reduce the risk of IVDD.

Keeping your dog slim can help reduce the forces on the spinal column. This is probably the most important risk reducer. Regular exercise and a controlled diet (without table scraps!) is a great way to reduce his waistline. When walking your low-rider keeping him in a harness helps spread the force from the leash across the chest instead of all pinpointed at the neck (a particularly nasty place). Keeping your pooch from jumping on and off of furniture is also a tremendous way to reduce forces applied through the spinal column. You may purchase doggie steps if you must have your doggie buddy on the couch. Supporting both ends, front and rear, when picking him up is also another helpful tip.

It is important to note that this is not a dachshund-only disease. Other breeds such as the corgi, beagle, cocker spaniel and basset hound, among others, are prone to this condition. If we all could picture our veterinarian in our proverbial rearview mirror when taking our pet’s well-being into consideration, I think that our low-riding, stubby-legged dogs would be much happier and healthier for it.

Dr. Marisa Tong is an associate at Delphos Animal Hospital and graduate of The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.