What is Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs?

October 09, 2020 5 min read 0 Comments

A tired tan puppy lies on a blanket

Dr. Erica Irish author of What is Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs?

There are many conditions in dogs that can cause pain or difficulty when walking. Most pups who become acutely lame are likely to have a soft tissue injury or sprain, and others can have certain orthopedic problems such as a torn cruciate ligament in the knee. However, there are certain neurologic conditions that can cause weakness, pain, or even paralysis.


What is intervertebral disc disease in dogs?

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) refers to having a degenerative joint problem that affects the spaces in between the vertebrae that make up your dog’s spinal column. Vertebrae are meant to encase the spinal cord, protecting it from injury, while allowing for flexibility thanks to the many joint spaces all throughout the spinal column. There are cartilaginous discs in between these vertebrae that allow for further protection because they act as shock absorbers when your dog moves, runs or plays.

The spinal cord is extremely sensitive and plays a vital role in nerve signal conduction throughout the body, especially to a dog’s hind limbs. If the spinal cord is injured in some way, a dog can develop limb weakness (paresis) or even paralysis. The hind limbs or all four limbs can be affected depending on the location of the spinal cord injury. If thecervical or neck region is affected, all four limbs can show signs of paresis or paralysis. If thethoracic (chest) orlumbar (lower back) regions are affected, only the hind limbs may appear abnormal.

For dogs with IVDD, an acute physical trauma from jumping or falling may be the inciting factor that results in weakness or paralysis. However, it is the gradual onset of disc degeneration that truly causes the development of these neurological signs. Intervertebral discs are made up of two layers: a fibrous and sturdy outer covering with a soft, squishy center layer. The outer layer of a disc can deteriorate and eventually leads to discherniation which is where the squishy center is pushed outward. Since discs are thinnest at the top, the center material tends to herniate up to where the spinal cord is located, pushing on the spinal cord. This pushing and pinching of the spinal cord is what causes paresis and paralysis.  


Symptoms of the intervertebral disc in dogs

Not all cases of IVDD present in the same way. This is because there are five stages of IVDD. If your dog has stage one disc disease, he may have mild pain that goes away in a few days. Stage two causes moderate to severe pain while stage 3 begins to affect your dog’s ability to walk. Stage four causes paralysis but with the continued ability to feel deep pain, and stage five involves paralysis with the loss of ability to sense deep pain.

Dogs with earlier stages of IVDD may walk normally but show subtle signs of pain, including shaking and panting, or they may lie down a lot. If their back is painful, your pup might walk with a “hunched” or curved posture. If the neck is painful, they may walk with their head down and they might cry out when they turn their heads or when they try to jump up or down. Dogs with paresis or paralysis will knuckle their paws or even drag their limbs behind them. For dogs who are completely paralyzed from the waist down, they can experience fecal and urinary incontinence.  


What is the cause of intervertebral disc disease?

Almost any dog can develop the degenerative joint disease that contributes to IVDD, and it is typically onset somewhere around middle to older age. Your dog can develop IVDD without your noticing it, and the signs might not be obvious until there is a sudden movement or force that causes a disc to herniate.

Certain dog breeds have a higher likelihood of developing IVDD. This includes Dachshunds, Poodles, Dobermans, Cocker Spaniels, Lhasa Apsos, Shih Tzus, and German Shepherds. There is an especially higher risk if any of these dogs become overweight.


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How is intervertebral disc disease diagnosed and treated?

Clinical signs are one of the main ways that veterinarians can diagnose IVDD, but the signs can mimic other conditions like a fibrocartilaginous embolism. Therefore, imaging is another important diagnostic tool. The spinal cord and discs will appear invisible on x-rays. However, sometimes mineralized disc material and compression between vertebrae can offer clues. If your vet is able to use contrast media, amyelogram can be performed to show where the spinal cord is being pinched. Often, more advanced imaging like CT or MRI is necessary to definitively diagnose IVDD and locate the exact lesion.

Treatment will be based on the stage of IVDD. Early stages may require rest and oral medications such as steroids and muscle relaxers for the pain. If your pup has mild to severe pain for longer than a week, he will need to have advanced imaging and possibly surgical correction. Dogs with paresis have better odds of full recovery when they have surgery, and dogs with paralysis cannot go more than 24 hours without surgery. Otherwise, their paralysis will be permanent.

Surgical correction involves the removal of a small section of bone from the vertebrae that are impinging upon the affected region of spinal cord compression. This type of surgery should be performed by a veterinary surgeon or neurologist. Your pup may still be a little uncomfortable and need strict rest for the first one to two weeks. After that, rehabilitation and physical therapy is necessary to help your pup move well again. Intermittent use of pain medications may be necessary, and long term use of joint supplements is important.

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Intervertebral disc disease can be a painful condition for dogs. It starts out very slowly and gets to a point where a certain movement or trauma results in the acute onset of clinical signs. IVDD can be extremely painful. It is important to get to your vet’s office right away to assess your pup and quickly determine what kind of treatment will be necessary to get him feeling well again!


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Meet The Author 

Dr. Erica Irish author of What is Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs?

Dr. Erica Irish

Erica has worked in the veterinary field since 2006, starting out as a veterinary technician before graduating from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. As a general practitioner in an animal hospital, she has many interests and is especially interested in dermatology, cardiology, internal and integrative medicine.