Like people, dogs are susceptible to problems with the discs in their spine. This condition can be very serious in dogs, causing extreme pain and leading to paralysis. Intervertebral disc disease refers to a herniated disc in the spine. Sometime called a "slipped disc," any dog can develop IVDD. 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 in Dogs?
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, 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 in an effort 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, 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.
- Lameness or Drunken gait (ataxia)
- Stepping on the wrong side of the paw (feet flipped over; usually affects rear limbs first)
- Dragging one or more limbs
- Tucked abdomen/hunched back
- Lowered head and/or difficulty turning the head (especially if the issue is in the neck)
- Reluctance or inability to move
- Inability to stand or walk, staggering, or frequent collapsing
- Sensitive to touch/painful in back
- Inability to control urination and/or defecation
Signs will depend on the exact location of the disc herniation or rupture. If the affected disc(s) are in the neck, the initial signs my simply be pain and trouble moving the head and neck. Left untreated, the dog may eventually become paralyzed in all four limbs.
If the affected disc(s) are in the lower back/lumbar area, then the dog may appear fully functional in the fromt limbs but be wobbly in the back limbs. Eventually, the dog may end up dragging his rear limbs behind him.
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 get to the neared open veterinarian right away. Failure to treat acute IVDD in a timely manner can result in permanent paralysis.
Causes of IVDD
IVDD is often a hereditary condition. It is most common in small to medium dogs with short limbs and elongated backs, such as Dachshunds, Shih Tzus, Pekingese, Lhasa Apsos, and Beagles. Any breed can be affected, but small dogs 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."
Treatment of IVDD in Dogs
If your dog shows any signs of IVDD, it is essential to get him to the vet as soon as possible. Your vet will begin by getting a thorough medical history, asking about lifestyle, past health issues, and current signs. Next, a complete physical examination will be done. 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).
If IVDD is suspected, the next step is to determine the severity. 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 walk 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.
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. First, 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 know 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 two to four days while the veterinarian monitors recovery. Some dogs will show immediate improvement, while others take longer. Though most dogs make a full recovery, some dogs will have residual impairment. A small percentage of dogs will not regain 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 at 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, or get up, or exhibits pain when picked up or jumping off of the couch, consult your veterinarian.
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.