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Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) in Dogs

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Severity: i Critical
Life stage: Puppy, Adult, Senior
  • IVDD is the most common cause of paralysis in dogs and can occur anywhere along the spine.
  • This condition is more common in certain dog breeds, such as dogs with very long backs and short legs.
  • Pain is a common symptom of IVDD, noticeable if a dog refuses to be touched or climb the stairs.
  • If you suspect your dog has a spinal injury of any kind, see a veterinarian immediately to aid full recovery.
  • Treatment involves medical therapy for milder cases or surgery required for more severe cases.

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) in dogs is one of the most common causes of spinal injury, and is especially prevalent in dogs with short legs and long backs such as Dachshunds. 

It is a painful condition that can cause paralysis. Luckily, if addressed quickly most dogs respond well to treatment for IVDD. 

What is IVDD?          

Dog at the vet with head tilted

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) in dogs is a condition where damage to the soft cushioning between bones of the spine causes compression of the nerves in the spinal cord. 

IVDD is commonly referred to as a slipped disc or herniated disc because the disc material moves out of its normal location and presses on the spinal cord, leading to pain and nerve damage. It is the most common cause of paralysis in dogs and can occur anywhere along the spine. The most common location is the region where the ribs end.

Types of IVDD in Dogs

There are two types of IVDD in dogs: type I and type II. 

Type I IVDD has a sudden onset and most commonly affects young, small-breed dogs such as Dachshunds. In Type I IVDD, the cushioning disc becomes mineralized and rapidly herniates against the spinal cord causing sudden pain or loss of function. This may happen when an at-risk dog jumps off a couch or takes a sharp turn while running after a ball. Though the onset of IVDD is usually associated with a specific injury, the disease actually starts long before that event. Slow hardening or degeneration of the disc makes it vulnerable to damage from activities that would otherwise be considered normal. 

Type II IVDD has a slower more chronic symptom progression and affects older, large-breed dogs such as German Shepherds.

What Causes IVDD in Dogs?

Back of corgi dog's neck

The spine is made of many small bones (vertebrae) that fit together with disks of cushioning material at the joint between them. The discs allow for gentle movement of the spine. The spinal cord, the bundle of nerves that connects the brain to the rest of the body, travels through a cavity in the middle of the vertebrae where it is protected from most types of injury. 

Where the spinal cord travels between vertebrae, it lays very near the intervertebral discs. When injury to the disc causes the disc to slip, bulge, herniate, or swell upwards towards the spinal cord it causes the symptoms of IVDD. 

Risk Factors for Dogs Developing Intervertebral Disc Disease

Basset hound puppy sitting in the park

IVDD is more common in certain dog breeds and mixes. These especially include the chondrodystrophic breeds: those dogs with abnormal body shapes such as very long backs and short legs. This is because the intervertebral disc degenerates at a faster rate than in standard shaped breeds.

Breeds more at risk of developing IVDD include:

  • Dachshunds
  • Corgis
  • Basset Hounds
  • American Cocker Spaniels

In fact, in these breeds degeneration of the disc starts before they are even fully grown. There are genetic risk factors associated with a higher likelihood of developing IVDD and genetic testing is available for some breeds.

Lifestyle also plays a role in intervertebral disc disease. An overweight dog is at higher risk due to the extra strain put on the spine. Compounding the problem, if an overweight dog does become injured it is harder for him to heal. Since the muscles around the spine offer additional support to bones and discs, dogs who live very sedentary lifestyles are more likely to suffer from IVDD. 

Symptoms of IVDD in Dogs

Dog looking sad refusing to go up stairs

Symptoms of intervertebral disc disease in dogs range from very subtle to complete loss of function in their limbs (paralysis). There are different levels of treatment depending on the severity of symptoms. 

Pain is a common symptom of IVDD. You may be able to pinpoint the location of pain but more often pet parents notice that their dog does not want to be touched or carried, or refuses to climb stairs and furniture. Symptoms may vary depending on the location of the slipped disc.

IVDD in dogs is categorized into five stages, ranging from mild to severe:

  • Stage 1 – The least severe, dogs can still walk although they may be painful and be reluctant to posture to urinate or defecate. 
  • Stage 2 – Involves weakness of the limbs  and dogs may walk or stand abnormally. 
  • Stage 3 – When dogs cannot walk on their own. At this severity of injury dogs may be able to move their legs when supported. 
  • Stage 4 – Dogs cannot move their legs, but they still have feelings in their toes.
  • Stage 5 – Dogs cannot move their legs and do not have feeling in their toes. 

Cocker spaniel laying in blanket sad

IVDD can be progressive, meaning it may worsen with time, especially if left untreated. Importantly, even with treatment it can recur as different discs along a dog’s spine degrade. 

Other symptoms of IVDD in dogs include:

  • Abnormal walking or standing position
  • Weakness
  • Reluctance to do normal activities
  • Limp tail
  • Unable to stand or walk
  • Loss of urinary or fecal control

Diagnosing IVDD in Dogs

Dog laying down at the vet

If you suspect your dog has a spinal injury of any kind, see a veterinarian immediately. Disc disease is just one cause of back problems in dogs but all of them are time-sensitive and require an emergency visit to the veterinarian. The longer you wait after your dog is injured the less likely he is to make a full recovery. 

The first thing your veterinarian will do is a full physical and neurologic exam. This includes assessing overall health, mental function, and heart function as different types of injury and disease can look similar. Your veterinarian will perform a neurologic exam to localize the spinal injury and assess the severity. This includes feeling along the spine and testing reflexes in the limbs. If your dog is in pain, your veterinarian may give a strong pain control medication after these diagnostic steps. 

Next, X-rays are required to both rule out other causes of spinal problems and determine the exact location of the slipped disc. Most specialty centers and some regular veterinary offices may use CT scans (three-dimensional X-rays) to better assess details of your dog’s spinal injury, especially if surgery is recommended. 

IVDD Treatment for Dogs

Dog looking sad laying on the ground

There are two types of treatment available, and the best one for your dog depends on the IVDD stage. The more mild stages are most often treated with medical therapy while stages 4 and 5 are treated surgically. All treatment also includes exercise plans and weight management.

Both medical therapy and surgery require follow-through with physical therapy. This improves muscle use and can help your dog learn to walk properly again while reducing the likelihood of another disc herniation.

Medical Therapy for Dogs With IVDD

Medical therapy involves pain management, anti-inflammatory medication, and strict rest in a small enclosure for 4-6 weeks. Medications may include sedatives like trazodone and gabapentin for dogs and a variety of NSAIDs.

Caring for a dog with IVDD can be very labor intensive as you may need to carry them out to the bathroom or change bedding frequently. Your veterinarian will need to see your dog frequently to update the medical and recovery plan. It may take two months or more before you start to see improvement. 

Medical IVDD treatment can cost $500-$1,000 for 3-6 months of visits and medication. Though medical therapy restores full function for many dogs, there is no guarantee that it will improve your dog’s symptoms.

IVDD Surgery for Dogs

Surgery is the recommended treatment for dogs with IVDD who cannot walk or who get worse while on medical therapy. Surgery for IVDD is aimed at decompression of the spinal cord. Bone is removed from the area of injury and the herniated disc material is scooped out. The surgeon may also remove disc material from neighboring locations to reduce the likelihood of recurrence. 

Surgical recovery requires pain management, strict rest, and adherence to the 6-8 week recovery plan. 

IVDD surgery for dogs generally costs between $4,000-$7,000 and is most successful if performed within 24 hours of the injury. 

Caring for a Dog with IVDD

Dog laying on the ground on a pillow

Dogs with recent IVDD should be strictly rested and only allowed to slowly return to activity under the supervision of a veterinarian. This is because activity too soon can worsen the spinal injury. 

To make a dog with a slipped disc comfortable, provide a confined area with plenty of padding (bedding, pillows, orthopedic mattresses) in an area where he can still feel like he is part of the family. Interact with the dog on the floor and make sure he knows he isn’t being punished by being confined. Make sure he drinks plenty of water and follow your veterinarian’s advice on feeding for weight management. 

As your dog heals, controlled exercise is important. This may include leashed walks and the exercises recommended by your dog’s physical therapy specialist. Dogs who have a history of IVDD should not be allowed to jump on and off furniture or in and out of cars. 

Not all dogs will regain the ability to walk on their own and some may need assistance. Luckily, in recent years dog slings and wheelchairs have become more available and more reasonably priced. Dogs may take time to get used to the wheelchair but most adapt well and can go on to live a full and happy life. 

It’s important to give your dog time and go slow. Unfortunately, some dogs do not respond to treatment or do not adapt to their changed abilities. 

How to Prevent IVDD in Dogs

There is no way to fully prevent IVDD. You can reduce your dog’s individual risk with a consistent exercise regimen and weight management. 

Dogs with a history of any IVDD should not be allowed to jump or engage in highly acrobatic activities like frisbee or agility. Consider low-impact, high-effort activities such as swimming instead. 

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