Dogs that have a longer back in relation to their leg length, such as the Basset Hound and Dachshund, are more at risk of developing slipped discs. One study looked at 700 dogs of various breeds that were presented to the Queen Mother Hospital for Animals in the UK during a one-year period. Of these dogs, there were 79 that had suffered a slipped disc and most of them had low and long body shapes. For reasons that can’t yet be explained, Cocker Spaniels and Jack Russell Terriers also had a slightly higher incidence of this painful and debilitating back condition.
The Ethics of Breeding
Breeders of dwarf breeds like Basset Hounds and Dachshunds need to take heed of the potential dangers of breeding dogs to have even shorter legs and longer backs. It’s common for breeders to try to keep up with the "breed standards" of these dogs, which may in fact be causing more harm than good. For example, breeding Miniature Dachshunds with a longer back makes them at much greater risk of disc disease than a similar dog with a shorter back.
Dogs that belong to these dwarf breeds have a different type of cartilage which puts them at greater risk of developing a specific kind of slipped disc. The term “disc” refers to a disc of gel that is found between the bones of the spine. The purpose of these discs is to cushion and absorb shock, and protect the back. Over time, the gel can harden up and degenerate and as a result, the disc may rupture. This causes the hard gel to spill out and compress the nerves and spinal cord. The result is severe pain and paralysis.
A slipped disc usually happens suddenly without any previous warning. You may be watching your dog run around the living room and at the next moment he is lying down in severe pain and can’t move his rear legs. There are several treatment options, some more successful than others. Mild cases may respond in the short term to anti-inflammatory medication. Surgical removal of the ruptured disc material is the treatment of choice. This involves treatment from a specialist surgeon then a prolonged confinement while he recovers, so you’ll need to crate train your dog. Some dogs learn to adapt to their paralysis and are quite happy to run around with a set of wheels supporting their hindquarters. Unfortunately, some individuals don’t respond to treatment and are in constant pain, so euthanasia is the kindest option for them.
It is time for dog breed associations around the world to take a closer look at the breeding standards for the dwarf breeds. As the legs get shorter and the back grows longer, the risks of a dog developing disc disease increase. Another risk factor for this condition is obesity, and this is where owner responsibility comes into play. To reduce your chances of owning a dog that develops disc disease, choose your breeder carefully so your pup isn’t too long in the back and short in the legs, and keep him lean as he grows up. Don’t over-feed him, and use low calorie treats for training. Prevention is definitely better than cure.