Dogs are among the most lovable and loyal pets in the world, which is why they’re so popular. They come with their fair share of accolades, but unfortunately are also susceptible to many serious health conditions.
One of these health concerns is Intervertebral Disc Disease, or IVDD, which is most commonly found in smaller dogs. Learn more about what causes IVDD, how to spot the signs of IVDD, and common treatments for IVDD by reading below.
What is Intervertebral Disc Disease?
Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) occurs when the cushioning intervertebral discs between the vertebrae of the spinal column become displaced, deteriorate, bulge out, rupture, or burst (herniate) into the spinal cord space. When this happens, the discs press on the nerves that run through the spinal cord, which can cause pain, nerve damage, and in severe cases, paralysis.
IVDD is sometimes referred to as a slipped or herniated disc. IVDD is one of the most common neurological disorders in canines and reportedly affects 2 percent of the domestic dog population.
To understand IVDD, one must take a look at the intervertebral column. A canine’s spine is made up of individual vertebrae. These consist of seven vertebrae in the neck (cervical vertebrae), thirteen thoracic vertebrae in the back, seven vertebrae in the lower back (lumbar vertebrae), three fused sacral vertebrae, and vertebrae in the tail (caudal vertebrae).
Most canine vertebrae are made up of a body at the base, a pedicle (side) and arch (top), and a dorsal spinous process. The spinal cord travels through and is protected by the vertebral canal. Between most of these vertebrae lies an intervertebral disc. The discs are made up of the outer annulus fibrosus and the inner gelatinous nucleus pulposus.
You can think of a healthy intervertebral disc as a jelly donut, wherein the annulus fibrosus is the outer doughnut, and the nucleus pulposus is the gooey jelly in the middle. These intervertebral discs act as cushions between the vertebrae. When a disc become unhealthy, the jelly portion of the donut dries out, blood supply to the disc slows, and it does not repair itself once it starts to degenerate.
When this drying out process occurs, the outer donut weakens, and the dog becomes more prone to injury. Simple daily activities like jumping off a chair or even walking can cause this outer portion of the disc to tear. This will cause the jelly center to squeeze out, causing bigger problems.
IVDD mostly occurs in a dog’s neck or the last few ribs to the low back area. Neck lesions may affect a dog’s front legs or both front and rear, while back lesions will affect the back half of a dog’s body.
What dogs are most at risk for Intervertebral Disc Disease?
There are several breeds of dogs that are at increased risk for IVDD. These dogs are mainly classified as chondrodystrophic breeds, or dogs with abnormally short legs. Breeds include Dachshunds, Beagles, Bulldogs, Basset Hounds, Corgis, Cocker Spaniels, Pekingese, Shih-Tzus, and Miniature Poodles. IVDD occurs primarily when the dogs are middle-aged, or three- to six-years-old.
IVDD does also affect some non-chondrodystrophic breeds, such as German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Doberman Pinschers. For non-chondrodystrophic dogs, IVDD is most common in those aged eight to 10 years.
Whether chondrodystrophic or not, obese dogs are most at risk.
What Causes of Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs?
In order to understand the causes of IVDD in dogs, one must first familiarize the two types of IVDD found in pups.
- Type I typically affects chondrodystrophic breeds. In Type I IVDD, most common in the neck region of these smaller breeds, the outer layer of the discs will calcify, or harden. This damages the disc, and allows it to break down more easily. Forceful impacts like jumping and landing can cause one or more disc(s) to burst and the inner material to press on the spinal cord.
- Type II is a more gradual, chronic protrusion of disc material that typically affects nonchondrodystrophic breeds. In Type II, discs become hardened over a long period of time, eventually breaking down, bulging out, and compressing the spinal cord. When the nerves of the spinal cord become compressed, the nerve impulses are unable to transmit their signals to the final destination in the limbs, bladder, etc. Severe damage can cause loss of bladder and bowel control, or even paralysis. Type II IVDD typically has less severe signs and symptoms than Type I.
IVDD is a degenerative process and does not result from sudden trauma, but a sudden trauma can cause a rupture or herniation in a dog whose discs were already weakened by IVDD. Ruptured discs can occur from jumping or playing fetch. Injuries caused by attacks or being hit by a car can cause similar symptoms, but is not the same as IVDD.
Symptoms of Intervertebral Disc Disease
There is a wide range of signs and symptoms associated with canine IVDD, ranging from mild pain to complete paralysis. However, most cases will fall somewhere in between. Since the intervertebral discs essentially serve as the shock absorbers or the spine, there are plenty of signs you can look for from your dog. And since IVDD can lead to permanent nerve damage, recognizing your dog’s symptoms in a timely manner and getting treatment can be extremely important.
Some signs of IVDD include:
- Unwillingness to jump
- Pain and weakness in rear legs (lameness)
- Anxious behavior
- Muscle spasms over back or neck
- Hunched back or neck with tense muscles
- Reduced appetite and activity level
- Loss of bladder and/or bowel control (urinary and fecal incontinence, respectively)
- Neck pain and stiffness (reluctance to move the neck and head)
- Lowered head stance
- Back pain and stiffness
- Yelping unexpectedly when touched or moving
- Abdominal tenderness or tenseness
- Sensitivity to touch and movement
- Dragging one or more legs when walking
- Stilted or tentative gait
- Tremors, trembling, shaking
- Lack of coordination (“ataxia”)
- Abnormal reflexes
- Paralysis in one or more limbs
There is also a grading scale used for dogs with IVDD:
- Grade 1: Pain only – these dogs are able to walk normally, but exhibit signs of pain, including reluctance to move or jump, shivering, crying, muscle spasms, and/or a tense abdomen.
- Grade 2: Ambulatory paraparesis – these dogs are able to walk, but are weak and wobbly in the rear legs. They may cross their back legs when walking, splay out, knuckle over or stumble in their back legs.
- Grade 3: Non-ambulatory paraparesis – these dogs are still able to move their legs and wag their tails, but are not strong enough to support their own weight and walk.
- Grade 4: Paraplegia – these dogs have no voluntary movement in the rear legs.
- Grade 5: Paraplegia with absent nociception (no ‘deep pain’) – in addition to being unable to move the back legs, they are unable to feel their back legs.
These symptoms can be sudden, intermittent or gradual in onset. Look for signs after your dog has engaged in strenuous physical activity or experienced any physical trauma. However, they can also appear at random, so always pay attention to your pet’s movements and demeanor.
How is Intervertebral Disc Disease Diagnosed?
If you suspect your dog might have IVDD, bring him into your veterinarian as soon as possible. They will conduct a thorough physical examination of your dog and go through his past medical history. If a spinal cord injury is suspected, your vet will conduct a complete neurologic exam. Your vet will be able to locate what particular section of the spine the injury is located. IVDD will appear as a single lesion in your dog’s spinal cord.
Other diseases, such as meningitis/myelitis, spinal tumors, trauma, infection, malformations, and vascular problems, can cause similar clinical signs of spinal cord disease. Because of this, other tests are necessary to accurately determine the cause of your dog’s injury.
One of these tests, called a myelogram, injects a special dye into the spine. This dye surrounds the spinal cord and allows it to appear on X-rays. Regular X-rays can show abnormalities in the spine, but without the dye, the spinal cord will not appear. Dogs are put under anesthesia during this procedure.
In some cases, further testing and an MRI or CT scan may also be conducted to locate where the nerves are being pinched, which is necessary for surgical repair to be an option. Spinal radiographs are also useful to screen for infection and tumors, but do not diagnose IVDD.
The diagnostic process for IVDD can be quite involved and require several different specialists, but it is usually worthwhile. If IVDD is caught early and treatment is initiated, the prognosis for dogs is generally quite good.
Treatment of IVDD in Dogs
Your dog’s treatment plan will depend on the severity of their symptoms.
Dogs with minimal symptoms can be treated with steroids and anti-inflammatories to reduce swelling and pain. Dogs will also typically be kept crated for up to six weeks to prevent further damage, after which they may gradually return to normal activity.
Dogs with more severe damage will require surgery. In this procedure, a portion of the bony vertebrae over the spinal cord is removed by the surgeon in order to take out the herniated material and compress the spinal cord. However, even after surgery, your dog may not recover fully.
Dogs with IVDD often encounter spasms in their back muscles as well. Heat and massage techniques are used along with medications to treat the spasms. Medications typically prescribed for IVDD include diazepam and methocarbamol.
Those dogs that undergo surgery will have to undergo rehabilitation to regain function. With proper care, these dogs can regain a good quality of life, but some will require a special cart to be mobile.
Prognosis for Dogs with IVDD
Generally, the prognosis for dogs with IVDD is quite good. Many dogs with mild cases of IVDD will regain feeling in their legs and walk again. Those that undergo surgery have the best chance of recovery if they are operated on soon after their initial diagnosis and can regain full function within three to six weeks after operation. Some dogs will have recurring bouts if other discs burst, but regular physical therapy helps reduce recurrence.
Conversely, dogs that aren’t treated aggressively will see a rapid decline in quality of life. Grade 5 dogs have a significantly lower chance of regaining function, but it is possible if surgery is performed early enough after the onset of paralysis.
Is there anything I can do to prevent my dog from getting Intervertebral Disc Disease?
The best thing dog owners can do to prevent their pup from getting IVDD is feeding them a healthy, nutritious diet to ensure they maintain a healthy weight. A few extra pounds can cause significant stress on your pup’s neck and back.
There are some other tactics you can use to help reduce stress as well.
For owners with chondrodystrophic breed dogs, make sure you control your dog’s activity. Try not to let them jump from high places, as their large bodies and short legs leave them prone to injury. Set them up with steps or ramps to get on furniture or in and out of bed. Or just pick them up in these instances. Crate them while you are gone if you suspect they are running and jumping around while you are out of the house.
Using a harness instead of a leash is better for your dog, especially if he tends to pull when he is on the leash. And particularly for Dachshunds, do not engage in rough-housing or tug-of-war.
These may seem like obvious yet minimal practices, but they can go a long way to ensuring a long and happy life for your dog.
Canna-Pet® Success Story: Beauregard
When 10-year old Beauregard was diagnosed with IVDD, his owner hated to see him in such terrible pain. He was prescribed a variety of different medications, one of which was detrimental to liver and kidney function if taken long-term.
Then Beauregard and his owner found Canna-Pet! His fur parent was amazed at the results! While Beauregard isn’t acting like a puppy again, he has enjoyed a much better quality of life after just a couple of days with Canna-Pet! His fur parent is happy to wean him off the harmful medications that he was prescribed.