Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) in Dogs

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Beagle on couch

Orange Robot / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Intervertebral disc disease refers to a herniated disc in the spine. Sometimes called a "slipped disc," any dog can develop IVDD, just like humans can. This condition can be very serious in dogs, causing extreme pain and can lead to paralysis. It can be due to a spinal injury or another issue, and while there is no way to prevent it, you can reduce the risk and know how to best care for your injured dog.

What Is Intervertebral Disc Disease?

Intervertebral disc disease is an age-related degenerative process of a dog's spinal cord. The bones of the spine, called vertebrae, are separated by discs. The discs act as cushions between the vertebra, absorbing shock while protecting the spinal cord.

When one of these discs becomes irritated, displaced, swollen, hardened, or ruptured, it can cause damage to the spinal cord. Think of the disc as a jelly donut (but with harder materials). If something damages it, the jelly may squeeze out. When a disc ruptures, the material inside can compress the spinal cord, causing extreme back pain and abnormal nerve conduction. The muscles around that area may become tight to add stabilization.

The type of neurological issues caused will depend on the location in the back where the spinal cord is injured. IVDD can occur in the neck (cervical), upper back, mid-back, lumbar area, and tail.

Symptoms of IVDD in Dogs

The symptoms of IVDD will vary and range from mild pain, severe pain, to partial or complete paralysis. Signs will depend on the exact location of the disc herniation or rupture.

IVDD may be a chronic issue that gradually worsens. Or, it can be an acute problem that requires emergency care. If your dog is suddenly dragging a limb or having a major time walking normally, then you should immediately find an emergency veterinarian. Failure to treat acute IVDD promptly can result in permanent paralysis in all four limbs.

Symptoms

  • Lameness or drunken gait (ataxia)
  • Stepping on the wrong side of the paw
  • Dragging one or more limbs
  • Tucked abdomen/hunched back
  • Lowered head and/or difficulty turning the head
  • Inability to move or stand
  • Trembling
  • Sensitive to touch/painful in back
  • Incontinence

Lameness or Drunken Gait (Ataxia)

If your dog has ataxia, the condition is somewhat mild. You will notice exaggerated limping and walking with crossed-over legs. However, if the ataxia persists for a couple of weeks, it may be that the condition is rapidly worsening.

Stepping on the Wrong Side of Paws

Your dog may try to walk on the wrong side of its feet, meaning its feet are flipped over and the spinal compression seems to making the dog try to walk on its knuckles. This will usually affect rear limbs first.

Dragging Limbs

If the affected disc(s) are in the lower back/lumbar area, then the dog may appear fully functional in the front limbs but be wobbly in the back limbs. Eventually, the dog may end up dragging its rear limbs behind.

Tucked Abdomen/Hunched Back

If your dog has a cluster of three symptoms—a tightened abdomen, hunched back, and walking off balance—this is usually a sign of IVDD. (A tight abdomen and hunched back alone may mean the dog has gastrointestinal or abdominal pain.)

Lowered Head and/or Difficulty Turning the Head

If the affected disc(s) are in the neck, your dog may have cervical IVDD. The initial signs of cervical IVDD may simply be pain and trouble moving and turning the head and neck. Or, your dog may keep its head lowered as a way of finding some relief.

Inability to Move or Stand

The inability to move means that the condition is severe and likely a cervical problem. When a disc rupture occurs in the neck area, it affects all four legs. However, if your dog can feel the pain of a hard pinch to the toes, and appropriately responds with a yelp or attempt to bite, it is a positive indication that the dog still has feeling. A hard pinch that goes unnoticed, or results in a mild flinch, may indicate that there is paralysis and no pain sensation in the dog's limbs.

Trembling

When a dog trembles or shakes, it is a good indication that it is in pain due to IVDD.

Sensitive to Touch/Painful Back

A dog with IVDD will have increased sensitivity when its back is touched, even gently.

Incontinence

Inability to control urination and/or defecation may mean that your dog is suffering from a disc problem in the lower back region.

Causes of IVDD

IVDD is often a hereditary condition. It is most common in small- to medium-sized dogs with short limbs and elongated backs, such as dachshunds, shih tzus, Pekingese, Lhasa apsos, and beagles. Any breed can be affected, but small dog breeds seem to be somewhat predisposed.

An injury can lead to IVDD. Dogs that have genetic predisposition are more likely to develop IVDD after an injury like a fall. Some dogs with the underlying disease can bring on an acute disc herniation or rupture just by jumping the "wrong way."

Diagnosing IVDD in Dogs

If your dog shows any signs of IVDD, it is essential to get it to the vet as soon as possible. Your vet will begin with a thorough medical history, and asking about lifestyle, past health issues, and current symptoms. Next, your vet will conduct a complete physical examination.

A neurological exam will be part of this process. The vet will look at motor function, reflexes, response to manipulation of the feet and limbs, and ability to stand and place feet on the ground properly. The vet will also watch the dog walk (or attempt to walk, depending on the severity of the dog's signs).

Treatment

If IVDD is suspected, the next step is to determine the severity.

Treatment for mild IVDD:

  • If the signs are mild and the dog has not lost motor function, then the vet may initially treat with anti-inflammatory medication, muscle relaxants, and rest.
  • It is essential that your dog rests for the time the vet recommends. This means staying in a crate or small room, no walks, no running, and absolutely no jumping.
  • Short leash walks are allowed only for urination and defecation. This gives the area a chance to heal.
  • Follow-up exams can help determine if this is acute or chronic IVDD.

Treatment for advanced IVDD:

  • If the dog's motor function is seriously impaired, then advanced diagnostics will be recommended. Your vet may refer you to a veterinary neurologist or veterinary surgeon for this step.
  • A spinal MRI (if available) will be done while your dog is under anesthesia.
  • Some vets will instead perform a myelogram (radioopaque dye is injected into the area around the spinal cord and radiographs (X-rays) are taken to locate the site of the disc rupture.
  • MRI and radiographs can rule out other issues like tumors and fractures. A CSF tap will likely be done as well to collect cerebrospinal fluid and test for inflammation.

If the testing reveals IVDD, surgery may be necessary. This is often discussed upfront as your dog will already be under anesthesia during testing and diagnosis. Fortunately, diagnostic imaging can locate the exact spot where the disc injury occurred. This way, the vet knows exactly where in the spine to operate.

Spinal surgery involves cutting through the skin and muscle to reach the vertebrae. Then, the surgeon drills through the bone and scoops out the disc material that is compressing the spinal cord. The procedure usually takes one to three hours.

Patients are typically hospitalized for three to seven days while the veterinarian monitors recovery. Some dogs will show immediate improvement, while others take longer.

Prognosis for Dogs With IVDD

Though most dogs make a full recovery after surgery, some dogs will have a residual impairment. A small percentage of dogs will not regain the function of their limbs. The prognosis depends on the severity of the disease and the individual dog. Pain after surgery is often less severe than the pain before. However, vets will regulate postoperative pain using various pain medications.

Sutures on the back can be removed after two weeks, and many dogs can walk at that time, even if they stagger a bit. Just like people after spinal surgery, it can take several months for a complete recovery. Physical therapy at home or a professional physical therapy facility can accelerate the process for many patients.

If immobility and pain return, another surgery may be necessary. If your dog is reluctant to walk or exercise, lay down, get up, or exhibits pain when picked up or jumping off of the couch, consult your veterinarian. Your doctor may recommend an IVDD back brace to bring relief and stabilize your dog's back. However, a dog that cannot feel pain in its legs may not be able to walk again.

How to Prevent IVDD

IVDD is not entirely preventable. However, there are ways to minimize risk in predisposed dogs:

  • Being overweight can contribute to IVDD, so keep your dog's weight under control.
  • Try to limit the ways your dog can get injured by jumping up and down off of furniture or stairs by using ramps or lower steps made for dogs.
  • Use of a harness instead of a leash can reduce the likelihood of IVDD in the neck.
  • Most importantly, make sure your dog sees the vet for annual physicals. Your vet may be able to detect small changes that indicate IVDD before it gets serious. This can allow your dog to get early treatment, preventing the pain and immobility caused by IDVV later on.
If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.
Article Sources
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  1. Degenerative Diseases Of The Spinal Column And CordVeterinary Manual

  2. Intervertebral Disc DiseaseAmerican College Of Veterinary Surgeons