Barbara’s Cardigan Charlie appeared to have constipation. He didn’t want to eat and was reluctant to do stairs. The day before he went down, he was unusually inactive. The next morning he wanted out early, and then just sat in the yard, looking a little slumped. Though he came about 7 am when Barbara called him, something was not right, he seemed weak, and she took him right to the vet. He walked in. Xrays showed no blockage and by then he was wobbly, so Barbara’s vet sent them to the neurologist. By 10 am at the neurologist he was walking like a drunken sailor. By the MRI at noon he could not walk at all and he went in for surgery at 2 PM.
It can happen that fast- or even faster. My Pem Candy was young (not quite 4), starting on his agility championship when he yelped as he crossed the living room floor and then went from normal to paralyzed in 4 hours. Or it can take longer. Teresa’s Zhoie seemed to be in pain one August weekend, but it wasn’t specific to her back and she wasn’t limping. A week later it suddenly started getting worse. Zhoie’s appearance was hunched, she was shivering, and she didn’t want to move. A Labor Day visit to the local pet ER ended with Zhoie, like Charlie and Candy, having back surgery.
Any sign of pain that you can’t attribute to another obvious injury should make you alert to possible IVDD in your corgi.
What to do? Go to the vet as soon as possible. Do not give any medication without direction from your vet, and do not feed your dog if he might go into surgery. Keep your dog as quiet as you can in the meantime. If it is an evening, weekend, or holiday, go to the ER vet (you may end up there anyway). It’s better to be safe than to wait when it comes to potential disk injuries.
When you go to the vet, she will probably feel your corgi’s spine for pain and test for loss of proprioception- this is turning the paw over to see if your corgi rights it normally. Proprioception is the ability to know where in space your body part is- in this case, the paw. If your corgi has already lost walking ability, your vet will test for DPP, or deep pain perception, by squeezing a paw (hard.) In IVDD, pain is a good sign.
If the signs point to a disk rupture, you will likely be sent to a neurosurgeon. (In milder cases, your vet may prescribe NSAIDs or Predisnone and recommend crate rest. ) Here’s where it helps to be prepared. You may be told that if an MRI shows a disk rupture they will take your corgi right into surgery- and then the big sticker shock- how much it costs. Price tags of $5000-$10,000 are not uncommon.
What if you just can’t afford that? There are some credit programs such as Care Credit, or you may be able to max out a credit card, but in many cases the financially responsible decision may be to forgo surgery. Your corgi may have a lower chance of recovering, but can still live a good life. A top of the line corgi cart might go to $700 (and there are good carts for half that), a far cry from $7000. We all have other expenses, and sometimes they mean we have to choose the lower cost option.
I have insurance on my Cardi Sadie because of this. I think of it like my Homeowners policy- I don’t want my house to burn down, but if it does, I’m covered. Likewise, I do not want to get my money’s worth out of my pet insurance but if her back goes out, I’m covered. Lack of funds will not be part of my decision-making. Another option is to start a savings account for vet care- but keep in mind that even if you put $100 a month in the account from birth, at 4 years old you’d have $4800- which wouldn’t pay for surgery and rehab in most places. Those with multiple dogs or healthy credit cards may opt to do without.
You may be told that without surgery your corgi will have no quality of life and should be euthanized. This is generally not true, and I’ll say more about that later. Conservative (medical) treatment has a lower chance of returning your dog to walking unassisted, but can be very successful, just as surgery can fail to let your dog walk again.
You may also hear something like there is a 50-50 chance even with surgery your corgi won’t walk again. However, statistics tell us that the best prognoses come when the onset was slow (not hours but days) and when deep pain perception is still present before surgery. This can have a nearly 100% success rate. Surgical success rates go down when the dog goes down quickly, has no deep pain, or has been down too long. Conservative (medical) treatment has lower success rates. So the gold standard for treatment is surgery. Generally during surgery the surgeon will also look at neighboring disks for others that are potentially ready to rupture and clean them out, possibly preventing recurrences.
Successful surgery can work immediately, with your dog starting to stand as he wakes up. Or it may take a few months of rehab to get your dog walking.
The worst case is not remaining paralyzed- it is a complication called myelomalacia. The spinal cord can respond to injury by softening and starting to bleed, and this almost always results in death. Some neurosurgeons believe giving aspirin contributes to this, so avoid using that as a home treatment (avoid any meds without talking to your vet first.) But most likely there is nothing anyone can do to prevent it, and it is fairly rare.
Medical management involves pain killers such as Tramadol to dull the pain, muscle relaxants such as Robaxin, and either an NSAID or Predisone for inflammation (but not both) and restricted activity. Strict crate rest is controversial, with some recommending it and others preferring to see dogs go into physical therapy right away. There is no question about what NOT to do, though, which is to let your dog up and running around as soon as he can. Activity should be restricted. Imagine that you have thrown your back out and how painful it is. We restrict our own activity voluntarily when that happens. We have to monitor our dog’s activity as he may be perfectly willing to ignore the pain and race around.
What happens when surgery or medical treatment is unsuccessful? Your dog may end up needing a cart temporarily or permanently. Oliver, who was treated medically, got to where he could stand, but didn’t have the proprioception to walk and would fall over. He went into a cart six years ago, and hasn’t looked back. Candy had unsuccessful surgery, never recovered any hind end function, and lived for 9 ½ years as a very healthy paraplegic. Oliver’s only paraplegia related injury was scraped feet, while Candy had one pressure sore and a number of rug burns. Charlie, on the other hand, did not walk immediately after surgery but is now taking a few steps on occasion (but using a cart).
What about chiropractic? This is also a little controversial, but I would not allow any spinal adjustments in a corgi unless an MRI had shown the absence of IVDD, and I have heard this echoed by veterinary neurosurgeons. I had a human friend whose back went out causing numbness in his legs, and the chiropractor would not touch him without an MRI first.
Carts can aid in recovery, according to Barbara Parkes, the owner of K9 Carts. (See https://www.k9carts.com/rehabilitation) Think of it as a walker for a dog. It prevents falls which might reinjure your dog and allows normal posture and near normal elimination, and a dog with hind leg movement will move the legs normally in the cart even if he can’t walk. It’s important to make sure the cart fits correctly and is used safely. It isn’t going to help your recovering corgi if he takes stairs like Oliver does in this video!
For dogs who do not get sufficient recovery to walk unassisted, a cart offers independence and freedom. If you are looking for a cart, you can find more information at http://corgiaid.org/wp/cart/choosing-cart/
Oliver has a great quality of life and contrary to what some people tell me, it is not a big commitment on my part. He doesn’t urinate on his own so I have to go outside with him to express him, which takes less than 5 minutes 4 times a day. He has to go into his cart before we go out. He wears a belly band inside to prevent drips, and I have to lift him onto the bed. That’s it. We have ramps at the steps and he doesn’t go upstairs (our bedroom is downstairs). Otherwise he is a normal bossy, barky Cardigan. He has participated in Nosework and Rally classes and loves to fetch his ball.
How can we prevent IVDD? We really can’t prevent type I.
It isn’t due to your dog being overweight, or doing stairs, or running agility, or eating wheat, or not eating raw, or lack of some vitamin. It’s something he’s born with and the disks spontaneously degenerate. In some dogs it is slow and they may just be ouchy and need to lay off activity periodically, and in others there may be no warnings before the dog is suddenly paralyzed. But you didn’t cause it by letting your dog do something. It has a genetic component, but we don’t know how it is inherited. There is currently a study at Texas A&M looking at the genetics of IVDD in Dachshunds which we hope will ultimately lead to a DNA test that will work for corgis. Currently selective breeding is difficult since inheritance is unknown and it can occur well after a corgi has been bred.
We don’t know of any supplement that prevents it.
If your corgi goes down, being in good condition will help with recovery. Not being overweight will help with recovery, too. But these wouldn’t have prevented the disease.
Bobbie Mayer is the author of “Corgis on Wheels: Understanding and Caring for the Special Needs of Corgis with Degenerative Myelopathy or Disk Disease”, which is available at http://www.corgiaid.org/cart/corgisonwheels or from Amazon.