Intervertebral disc disease or IVDD is a painful degenerative disorder that affects some dog breeds more than others as they become older.
What is IVDD in Dogs?
IVDD in dogs is a fairly common spinal condition in dogs that occurs as a result of the herniation of an intervertebral disc. Dogs have a gelatinous material with a thick outer coating that can be discovered between the bones and spine. This material makes up intervertebral discs and acts as a stress absorber for the spine. If this disc herniates, it can cause concussion or compression of the spinal cord, resulting in long-term and devastating consequences and pain. IVDD is divided into two types:
Hansen type-I disc disease is most prevalent in small breed dogs over the age of two, although it can also affect larger breeds. The onset is fairly acute with a variety of clinical signs which contribute to the prognosis as well as how long the signs last. Clinical signs include a range from severe pain in the neck and back to paralysis. The inner contents of the intervertebral disc are more conveniently identified as an “extrusion” or “herniation” in Hansen type-I intervertebral disc disease. That arrangement of the intervertebral disk is similar to that of a jam doughnut where the “jam” (nucleus pulposus) becomes hard and isn’t compressive anymore.
Hansen type-ll is more comparable to disc disease in humans while also occurring in non-chondrodystrophic dogs. Instead of an excursion like in type-l where the “jam” explodes outwards, the annulus, which is the outer part of the disc, bulges and protrudes. Signs onset fairly acutely but can also develop progressively over time. Clinical signs include not wanting to exercise/go for walks, reluctance to jump or walk upstairs, or have a hunched back or look stiff. Treatment varies on the severity. While a disc can bulge or herniate anywhere along the spinal column, the thoracolumbar (midback) region accounts for 65 percent of recorded disc ruptures, while the cervical (neck) region accounts for 18 percent.
What Causes IVDD?
Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) is a progressive, age-related degenerative condition that damages the dog’s spinal cord over time.
The shock-absorbing discs between your dog’s vertebrae eventually harden until they can no longer cushion the vertebrae properly, resulting in IVDD. The stiffened discs often bulge and compress the spinal cord, disrupting the dog’s nerve signals that govern bladder and bowel control in many cases.
In other circumstances, a simple leap or a bad landing can cause one or more of the hardened discs to rupture and push against the dog’s spinal nerves, causing discomfort, nerve damage, or even paralysis.
What Dogs Are at Risk for Developing IVDD?
While this is a disease that often occurs in older dogs, certain breeds are more at risk for developing IVDD at a younger age including chondrodystrophic dogs and crosses of those breeds. The following breeds are predisposed to IVDD:
- Dachshund (45-70% of IVDD cases)
- Shih Tzu
- French bulldog
- Lhasa Apso
- Doberman pinscher
- Cocker spaniel
- Basset hound
- Labrador retriever
- German shepherd
What are the Symptoms of IVDD in Dogs?
Intervertebral Disc Disease can affect any of your dog’s discs, with different symptoms depending on which part of the spine is damaged and how severe the damage is. IVDD symptoms can appear suddenly or gradually. If your dog displays any of the symptoms indicated below, get medical attention as soon as possible. IVDD in dogs may be very painful, so it’s vital to get treatment as soon as possible to avoid the disease escalating or causing permanent damage to your dog’s spine. Symptoms may differ depending on the location of the damaged disc.
Neck Intervertebral Disc Disease Symptoms (Cervical IVDD)
The discs in the dog’s neck are affected by cervical IVDD. If you notice any of the following symptoms, which can affect the entire body and range from mild to severe, call your veterinarian immediately for advice or seek care at the local animal emergency hospital:
- Holding head low
- Arched back
- Shivering and or crying
- Unable or reluctance to move
- Unsteadiness in all 4 legs
- Unable to support own weight
- Unable to feel all 4 feet and legs
- Paw knuckling
- Unable to walk normal/unsteady gait
Lower-Back Intervertebral Disc Disease Symptoms (Lumbosacral IVDD)
If your dog has lumbosacral IVDD, the troublesome disc or discs are in the lower back area of your dog. The symptoms of lumbosacral IVDD usually affect the dog’s rear end and can range from moderate to severe:
- Pain and/or difficulty jumping
- Limp tail
- Urinary or fecal incontinence
- Dilated anus
Back Intervertebral Disc Disease Symptoms (Thoracolumbar IVDD)
Dogs with Thoracolumbar IVDD have a damaged disc in their back that causes issues, and they may exhibit one or more of the symptoms listed below. Thoracolumbar IVDD symptoms mostly affect the mid-to-back section of the dog’s body, and they can range from mild to severe:
- Muscle spasms
- Tense belly
- Weakness in hind legs
- Crossing back legs when walking
- Inability to walk normally
- Knuckling of back paws, or dragging rear legs
- Inability to support their own weight
- Unable to move or feel back legs
How is IVDD Diagnosed?
When it comes to breeds that are commonly predisposed to IVDD, your vet may be able to tell if your dog’s unusual behavior and pain is IVDD. X-rays are a generally inaccurate diagnostic method for disc herniation. If IVDD is suspected of causing discomfort or other problems, an x-ray of the dog’s spine is not recommended. If clinical grading is required, a veterinary examination is used instead of imaging data. Additional diagnostic tests aren’t necessary in many cases.
An MRI is very beneficial for dogs who are about to undergo spine surgery as it’s an excellent method for confirming IVDD diagnosis and planning surgery. Keep in mind that while an MRI scan can determine the specific site of a spinal problem, it does not always offer reliable information about the dog’s chances of recovery or whether surgery is necessary. The dog’s clinical examination findings (or clinical IVDD grade) are more helpful in this case. Although, MRI’s are not always accessible due to the cost if the dog can undergo anesthesia and not every facility has an MRI machine. If an MRI is not accessible, myelography or a CT scan may be performed instead of an MRI before surgery. But Advanced imaging like an MRI may be a good idea early in the course of the disease in specific dog breeds presenting with particular clinical symptoms to help rule out spinal tumors, infection, and other disorders.
What is the Treatment for IVDD?
There are different options for the treatment of IVDD in dogs usually dependent on the severity and where they are in the development.
Anti-Inflammatory Medications and Rest
Mild to moderate IVDD injuries may be able to be treated with anti-inflammatory medications and steroids to help reduce pain and swelling combined with strictly reduced activity for about 4 to 6 weeks, usually in the form of crate rest. If your dog has lost their ability to walk, they will need emergency surgery.
Surgery is often the most recommended treatment for more severe cases of IVDD. Surgery usually involves removing the hardened disc material that is pressing on the spinal cord and causing IVDD and pain. There are multiple types of surgery for IVDD including hemilaminectomy, laminectomy, fenestration, and ventral slot. This is usually ideal in cases in which the dog hasn’t lost their ability to walk but can be done either way. Recovery takes about 6-8 weeks with extremely restricted activity. Even with surgery, it is recommended for dogs to use wheelchairs in order for them to have an increased quality of life.
Physical therapy is usually recommended for dogs post-IVDD surgery so they can start regaining their muscle strength and move comfortably again. Physical rehabilitation has several advantages, not only in the treatment of IVDD including strength, balance, mobility, weight-bearing, gait retraining, and proprioception enhancement. There are multiple physical therapy treatments that may be done including laser therapy, shockwave therapy, hydrotherapy, balance discs, wobble boards, exercises, and manual therapy.
What is the Prognosis of IVDD in Dogs?
There is an excellent prognosis for dogs with IVDD with the exception of the most severe cases. Early diagnosis is key in having the best prognosis possible as it can lower the chance of needing surgery, the risk of surgery, and the expenses.