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Back Problems

Chihuahua Back Problems


When people refer to back problems with the Chihuahua breed, they are most often referring to a troubling condition called Intervertebral Disk Disease (IDD). Please note that medical terminology uses 'disc' and 'disk' interchangeably. Some refer to this as 'slipped disk' or as 'disk disease'. 

There are two different forms of this condition, a wide range of symptoms and it can develop due to things as seemingly simple as jumping down from furniture. In this section we will discuss:
  • Details of what IDD means 
  • What can trigger this to develop 
  • Signs of symptoms of this back problem 
  • How this is diagnosed 
  • Treatment options 
  • Tips for prevention

What is IDD in Chihuahuas? 

Intervertebral Disk Disease is a disorder affecting the discs in backbone. It is commonly seen in chondrodystrophic breeds such as the Dachshund, Shih Tzu and Bassett Hound. Though, the Chihuahua can develop this. While it can occur at any age, it most often is seen with adults dogs over the age of 7.

All canines have 34 bones to the spine (or backbone). These are surrounded by nerves, muscles, ligaments, the interebral discs and blood vessels. 

The spine protects the sensitive spinal cord and provides support for the dog's entire body. In between each of the 34 individual bones of the spine are disks that cushion stress that would normally be put on the bones.         
Issues occur when one or more of the discs slip or rupture. This can cause pain and it can also cause numbness, weakness and even paralysis.

There are 2 types of IDD:

1) The 1st can begin to develop when a puppy is only a few months old; this is not commonly seen with this breed.

2) The 2nd type develops in a dog's later years, typically between the ages of 6 to 10 years old. With the Chihuahua, this second, adult on-set type is what strikes the breed most often.

Causes of IDD

The rupture or abnormal movement of a disc normally happens in one of three ways:

1) The dog may have acute trauma - This refers to a violent, sudden injury including being hit by a motor vehicle, as the victim of a dog attack or a fall from a significantly high elevation.

2) Natural degeneration - With some senior Chihuahua dogs, a problem will develop as the dog ages and there is a degeneration of the discs. Over time, they become hardened and fibrous. The disc(s) ultimately break down, bulge out, and compress against the spinal cord.

3) An abrupt jolt to the back - More common is a certain activity that many owners would never suspect would cause a back problem. The dog will move a certain way that causes a quick jarring of the back.

Some examples of actions that a Chihuahua may do that can cause a disc to slip are:
  • Jumping off an owner's bed, sofa or other furniture. Take note that this is not a relatively high elevation for humans; chairs and couches are typically 18 inches (.45 meters) off of the floor. Though, for a Chihuahua, leaping from this height can cause acute and severe injury. And of course, the smaller the dog, the larger the jump will be for him, relative to his body size.
  • Springing out of the car. The typical drop off from the seat of a car to the ground is 20 inches (.50 meter); some pickup trucks and jeeps can be twice that high.
  • Leaping from a platform into a owner's arms
  • Vaulting into the air and landing with too more force or twisting as he lands

Signs and Symptoms

While a Chihuahua may let out a loud yelp and immediately show signs of back injury, in some cases there will not be any signs until a while later. The dog may seem a bit restless and owners may feel that something is 'off'. As inflammation sets in, the back pain will worsen.
Pain can radiate through different parts of the body and for some dogs, the pain will be so intense that it affects behavior and appetite. Because Intervertebral Disc Disease can range from mild to severe, there are a wide range of symptoms. A dog may not display all of these signs. If you noticed at least 2 of the following, this may very well point to IDD:
  • Pain that radiates up the neck/ stiff neck - The Chihuahua will avoid turning his head side to side 
  • Keeping the head held in a lower than normal stance 
  • Yelping when touched, picked up or when moving a certain way 
  • The abdominal area may be sensitive to touch 
  • Keeping the back in a hunched posture (arching the back) 
  • Limpness in a hind leg (hopping, favoring one leg, dragging a leg) 
  • Weakness 
  • Reluctance to rise from a lying position 
  • A stiff gait when walking 
  • Shaking 
  • Loss of coordination 
  • Loss of bladder control 
  • Paralysis in one or both hind legs

How Disk Disease is Diagnosed with a Chihuahua

While it is recommended to take a Chihuahua to his veterinarian first, a dog with back problems may then be referred to a veterinary neurologist.

The following should be done to diagnose this:

A full and complete physical - The vet will look for signs of shaking, increased heart and respiratory rates, tenderness to the abdominal region, weakness to the back end, and lameness to any of the legs

Blood work (complete blood count and serum biochemistry panel)

Panniculus test - This is a somewhat non-invasive test in which a small needle is poke into the dog's skin. This is to test the amount of feeling that the Chihuahua has in that area. If he can feel the needle, the skin will react. By moving the needle along the area, a veterinarian can determine which vertebrae are affected.

Proprioceptive deficits testing - This checks how well a dog is able to recognize the placement of his limbs without seeing how they are manipulated.

Myostatic exam - more commonly known as the Knee jerk reflex

Deep pain / withdrawal reflex - Normally if a dog's toe is pinched, he will withdraw his leg. When a dog has a back injury such as IDD, this automatic reflex may be absent.

X-rays - Radiographs will be able to help a veterinarian determine not only possible slipped discs in the back, but other problems as well including other trauma, cysts, tumors or infection in the spine. When IDD is suspected, the vet will be looking for discs that have calcified (normally they are invisible under x-ray). This normally noninvasive test can be very painful for a Chihuahua with a severe back problem; for this reason having the dog sedated while his body is positioned will be considered.

Myelogram - Many people think of this as the 'dye test'. A safe dye is injected into the dog's body that will allow the neurologist to see the outline of the spinal cord. This is always done before any surgery.

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) - This is another option that may be used to gain a good view of the dog's spine.

Treatment Options

In all but severe cases of this back problem, a non-invasive treatment plan will be tried first. This will include:

Rest - This is very strict cage rest. Playpens or doorway gates are not used. The dog must be in a cage small enough that he cannot jump, run or have much movement at all. Since dogs that do not recover may need surgery, it is very important for owners to stay firm with this. Restricted movement is usually prescribed for up to 3 weeks.

Anti-inflammatory medicines- Usually, cortisone is given. This can help with both pain and swelling.

Muscle relaxants- These allow the back to loosen and relax. It also works to minimize back spasms.
If during the time of the first 3 weeks, the combination of restricted movement and medication work to help a dog feel better, it will be important to limit activity or exercise for an additional 3 weeks; if not the Chihuahua can re-injure the back. During this time, a dog may be given continual anti-inflammatory medications.

Surgery is the recommended treatment if:
  • The Chihuahua suffered any paralysis
  • There is ongoing reoccurring back problems
  • The initial treatment was not successful
The goal of the operation is to relieve pressure on the dog's spinal cord. A piece of the vertebral body will be removed or the disc tissue will be cleaned out. This can bring a great deal of pain relief to a dog that was suffering from this type of back issue. Recover from surgery can be difficult and involves hydrotherapy and physical therapy. Even dogs that suffer from paralysis can benefit from this, since it can remove pain from the back area.


1) While we cannot control all of the effects of aging, making sure that a Chihuahua receives excellent care throughout his life can increase chances of healthy senior years.

2) Do not allow your dog to get in the habit of jumping off furniture. If there are particular areas that the dog tends to jump down from (your favorite sofa, your bed, etc.) placing canine foam steps can prevent injury from jarring the back.

3) Do not allow your Chihuahua to over-exert himself during exercise.

4) At the first signs of suspected back problems, bring your Chihuahua to the veterinarian right away for a full evaluation.
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