IVDD (Intervertebral Disc Disease) in Dogs

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) in dogs is a medical condition that causes spinal compression and requires immediate attention. Compression of the discs within the spinal vertebrae causes severe spinal and nerve pain, and sometimes even paralysis. Read on to learn what signs and symptoms to look out for in the event your dog may be experiencing IVDD, as well as the treatment and management options available.

In this article: 

What are intervertebral discs in dogs?

An intervertebral disc is essentially the cushion between each of the bones within your dog’s spinal cord. The spine is made up of individual bones called vertebrae, and in between each vertebrae sits a disc-shaped material that has a firm, fibrous covering on the outside with a gelatinous-like substance on the inside of the disc. These discs help cushion and protect the bones of the spine. A dog’s spinal cord is comprised of the following bones: 

  • 7 neck (cervical) vertebrae 

  • 13 chest (thoracic) vertebrae 

  • 7 lower back (lumbar) vertebrae

  • 3 fused sacral (below the lumbar area) vertebrae

  • Several tail vertebrae (the number of which can vary by dog)

What is IVDD (intervertebral disc disease) in dogs?

Intervertebral disc disease is what occurs when one or more discs in the spinal cord become compressed, which causes nerve and spinal pain. This occurs when the discs either protrude or rupture due to calcification (accumulation of hard calcium in normally soft areas) or degeneration (structural changes in bone or tissue over time). 

Types of IVDD in dogs

There are two types of IVDD that can occur within dogs. They are: 

Type I: This form of IVDD occurs when the intervertebral disc becomes calcified and then suddenly protrudes from within the spine, which causes very painful pressure along the spine and associated nerves. Also known as a “slipped” disc or herniated disc, often something as simple as a wrong movement can cause the calcified disc to protrude. Additionally, the disc can protrude in different directions, thus causing different types of pain. If the disc protrudes upward, it can cause bruising and compression of the spine. If it protrudes sideways, it will hit the nerves where they exit the spinal column. Either type of protrusion causes sharp pain and a reduction of nerve function. Type I more commonly affects small breed dogs. 

Type II: This form is a slower process of disc protrusion caused by degeneration of the disc material. During this process, the disc material slowly collapses, which causes it to then protrude from the spine. Large breed dogs are most often affected by degenerative disc disease. 

Stages of IVDD in dogs

There are five stages of intervertebral disc disease. They may begin mildly, but over time, the signals important for function in the spinal cord become pinched, and feeling can be lost, affecting the front or both sets of limbs. This can happen in a span of several days or weeks, sometimes within a day. The stages are:

  • Stage I: This is when your dog experiences mild pain without any neurologic deficits. If the disease does not progress, this pain will usually self-resolve after several days.

  • Stage II: Your dog will have moderate to severe pain within the neck (cervical) or lower back (lumbar) areas.

  • Stage III: This stage is when a dog experiences partial paralysis, also known as paresis. This may result in difficulty walking, incoordination, or an inability to stand.

  • Stage IV: During this stage, a dog will experience complete paralysis, meaning that they are not able to move their legs. However, they will retain their ability to feel pain within their limbs or a deep pinching of the toes.

  • Stage V: This is when a dog experiences both complete paralysis and loses all feeling or sensation within their limbs and paws and is not able to feel a deep pinching of their toes. 

Signs and symptoms of IVDD in dogs

Your dog might express that they are feeling pain in their spinal cord in many different ways. Look for these signs or symptoms: 

  • Yelping or crying

  • Reluctance to move

  • Difficulty getting up or laying down

  • Difficulty walking up or down stairs

  • Difficulty getting up onto furniture that they may normally otherwise have no problem accessing

  • Shaking or trembling

  • Inability to walk

  • Limping

  • Discomfort when turning their head/neck

  • Lack of conscious proprioception (your dog’s ability to perceive paw placement on the ground)

  • Loss of control of urination and bowel movements

What causes IVDD in dogs?

IVDD occurs when either calcified or ruptured intervertebral discs get displaced or protrude, causing spinal and nerve pain and compression. 

Causes of this type of disc damage can either be:

  • Heredity

  • Caused by sudden force (such as from a dog jumping and landing poorly)  

What dog breeds are at risk of getting IVDD?

Small breed dogs, and most often breeds known as chondrodystrophoid (dogs with long bodies but short legs), are most commonly affected by IVDD. Damage to the discs begins early, and these dogs may show symptoms as soon as 1 to 2 years of age. Chondrodystrophic breeds include: 

  • Beagle

  • Dachshund and miniature dachshund

  • Lhasa Apso

  • Pekingese

  • Shih Tzu

  • French bulldog

It should be noted that large breeds can also be affected by Type II/degenerative disc disease (such as the German shepherd), with the onset typically occurring around the age of 5 years. 

How is IVDD diagnosed in dogs?

Your veterinarian can diagnose IVDD using several different methods. 

  • First, during a physical exam, your veterinarian will perform a neurological exam, which will check your dog’s reflexes and proprioception. 

  • They next may recommend taking radiographs of the spinal column, which can allow your veterinarian to see any obvious spinal issues, such as fractures or calcified discs. Keep in mind that sometimes radiography may require sedation, depending on your dog’s health. 

  • In some circumstances, additional imaging may be necessary, such as an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), CT (computed tomography) scan, or myelography (where iodine is injected around the spinal cord to allow for a clearer visualization of any areas of compression). 

  • Your veterinarian may also recommend running bloodwork (such as a complete blood count and chemistry) prior to starting treatment with anti-inflammatories to ensure your dog’s liver and other organs will be able to safely tolerate the medication. 

  • Long-term treatment involving anti-inflammatories or pain medication will also require periodic recheck lab work to ensure the medications are not having any adverse effects on your dog’s organs. 

Treatment for intervertebral disc disease in dogs

Your veterinarian will work out a treatment plan with you based on your dog’s current level of function and pain. If your dog is still able to walk, the first step of treatment will involve strict cage or crate rest in combination with medical management such as:

  • Steroids

  • Anti-inflammatories

  • Pain medication

  • Muscle relaxants

During this time, your dog should be carried outside to go to the bathroom. 

It is very important to prevent your dog from any type of running, walking, jumping, or playing. 

Depending on your dog’s response to rest and medical management, your veterinarian may recommend additional or concurrent treatments and therapies to help your dog regain function and manage pain, such as physical therapy or acupuncture. 

It should be noted that your dog will have an improved chance of recovery (to regain normal function) if they receive medical treatment as soon as possible after the onset of IVDD signs and symptoms. 

Is there a cure for IVDD in dogs?

There is no technical “cure” for IVDD in dogs. However, affected dogs can live long and happy lives through utilizing things such as medical management, rest, physical therapy, and surgical decompression. 

Can a dog recover from IVDD without surgery?

Yes. There are non-surgical options for the treatment of less severe stages of IVDD that may help provide pain relief, comfort, and increased mobility. One such option is physical therapy with a professional veterinary physical rehabilitation specialist. Physical therapy will help your dog regain mobility and function through such modalities as:

  • Massage

  • Traction

  • Exercises

  • Underwater treadmill

  • Chiropractic treatments

  • Acupuncture 

What happens during IVDD surgery?

Sometimes surgery is recommended. The goal of IVDD surgery is to decompress the spinal cord by making space and/or moving hardened areas out of the way, thus providing relief to your dog’s symptoms. 

As the Veterinary Information Network states, studies have shown that if a dog has what is described as “deep” pain within one of their limbs and is unable to walk, they have approximately an 83% to 93% success rate after surgical correction. In dogs who have no perception of pain and cannot walk, surgical success is about 50% to 60%. 

There are several different types of surgery to address IVDD. These include: 

  • Hemilaminectomy: This is the most common IVDD surgery performed on disc protrusions within the chest and lower back (thoracolumbar) area of the spine. Articular facets and vertebral bone are removed.

  • Ventral slot: During this surgery, a “slot” will be drilled into the vertebrae of the neck to create a little opening, which allows for spinal cord swelling to decompress.

  • Fenestration: A fenestration is where disc material that has the potential to herniate is removed away from the spinal cord. The surgeon does this by making a cut over the fibrous area to remove any calcified disc material. 

  • Dorsal laminectomy: In this invasive surgery, your surgeon will remove some of the bone on the dorsal, or back, of the vertebral column affecting one disc.

  • Pediculectomy: This surgery is very similar to a hemilaminectomy, with the exception that it is less invasive and preserves the articular facets of the vertebrae. This method is used when the herniated disc is protruding off to the side, instead of upward. 

What if my dog isn’t able to walk again?

Unfortunately, IVDD can result in a dog becoming paralyzed. Usually, the point of paralysis begins at the area of herniation, causing everything below that point to become paralyzed. However, there are mobility aids that can be used to help assist your dog’s movement. These can include harnesses and carts, which are specifically fit to your dog’s measurements. 

If paralysis does occur, some things to be mindful of are bed sores, skin infections (from dragging or prolonged laying), and overall cleanliness. Your veterinarian can help formulate an at-home care plan for you and your dog according to your dog’s personal healthcare needs. 

Is intervertebral disc disease in dogs contagious for humans or other pets?

No, IVDD is not contagious to other animals or humans. 

What is the cost of treating IVDD in dogs?

The cost of treatment will vary depending on the severity of disease and what course of treatment is recommended. Your veterinarian will be able to provide you with an estimate to review prior to any diagnostics or treatments being performed to give you a better understanding of what to expect financially. 

Recovery and management of IVDD in dogs

You may need to make several long-term adjustments within your home during your dog’s recovery. These may include:

  • Implementing ramps

  • Using raised food and water bowls

  • Orthopedic dog beds

  • Eliminating slippery surfaces within the home (such as tile or hardwood) by putting down runners, rubber mats, or yoga mats to help your dog gain traction while walking 

Also, paralysis can result in your dog’s inability to urinate on their own. Your veterinarian can help provide personalized recommendations on how to handle this at home. Solutions may include:

  • Manual expression of the bladder

  • Dog diapers

  • Padding

  • Indwelling urinary catheters 

However, this may also lead to an increased risk of urinary tract infections in your dog, and it may require frequent urine testing through a urinalysis or urine culture and sensitivity. 

Will IVDD reoccur?

IVDD does have the potential to reoccur, depending on the treatment method used and your dog’s response to that treatment. As the Merck Veterinary Manual states, studies have shown that symptoms typically reoccur in 30% to 40% of dogs with IVDD. In dogs with severe symptoms and pain, it is important that they receive surgical treatment as quickly as possible. This is because the chance of recovery decreases greatly if surgical correction is delayed for more than 24 hours after a dog’s pain perception is lost. 

How to prevent IVDD in dogs

Unfortunately, IVDD cannot be prevented, as in most cases it is a hereditary condition. Keeping your dog safe from situations that may potentially cause spinal injuries can be helpful, but IVDD is not always caused or exacerbated by injury. 

Is there a vaccine for intervertebral disc disease in dogs?

No, there are no vaccines available for IVDD in dogs. 

Summary of IVDD in dogs

The occurrence of IVDD in dogs is an emergency that requires immediate medical attention. Knowing what signs and symptoms to look out for can help increase your dog’s chances of retaining their normal mobility and function. If you have any concerns about your dog’s mobility and think they may be experiencing intervertebral disc pain, contact your veterinarian immediately.

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