Pet InfoRx
Dog Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD)

You might be scared because your dog is acting as if their neck or back is painful, and in addition to this, their legs seem weak. Your dog may have Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD).

This InfoRx will help you understand what this disease is, its cause, as well as what you can do for your dog.

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A Dog's Spine

Beagle dog lying down-DP

A dog's spine is made up of blocks of bone called vertebrae that are separated by discs. The spine is divided into five sections of vertebrae – 7 cervical (neck), 13 thoracic (chest), 7 lumbar (back), 3 fused sacral (tail bone at the base of the tail), and a fluctuating number of tail vertebrae. Humans have 7 cervical, 12 thoracic, 5 lumbar, 5 sacral, and 4 caudal vertebrae. Since human and canine spines are so similar, they both can suffer from similar diseases.

What Is Intervertebral Disc Disease?

In order to understand what Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) is, it's easiest if we understand the anatomy or parts involved. The spine, with regards to IVDD, can be divided into two main regions – the neck region and the thoracolumbar region (area near the ribs and lower back). The individual spinal vertebrae are separated by intervertebral discs. The discs have a fibrous ring surrounding a jelly-like center. The intervertebral discs provide a cushion, to ease the impact of running or jumping, between the spinal vertebrae. They are what allow the spine to be flexible and have movement.

Intervertebral Disc Disease is a degenerative condition where the disc bulges or ruptures in a dog’s neck or thoracolumbar region of the spine. When the disc ruptures or bulges it causes compression and/or damage to the spinal cord and nerves.

The location and the level of severity of the bulge or rupture determine the signs you will see with your dog. Some dogs can initially suffer from just neck or back pain. If the disc issue is in the neck region, dogs can be unsteady in all four limbs or be completely unable to move. If, however, the disc issue is in the thoracolumbar region (mid-back), only the hind limbs are affected. As the disc presses on the nerves of the spinal cord, the effects are pain, possible nerve damage, and even paralysis.

About 85% of IVDD occurs in the thoracolumbar region (mid-back) of the spine

Dog breeds that are predisposed to IVDD include

  • Dachshund
  • Basset Hound
  • Beagle
  • Welsh Corgi
  • Shih Tzu
  • Pekingese
  • English Bulldog
  • French Bulldog
  • German Shepherd

IVDD is normally classified as either Hansen Type I or Hansen Type II

While this is typically an age-related disease, predisposed breeds can be affected as young adult dogs. For Hansen Type I disease, the average is 3 to 6 years, and for Hansen Type II the average age is 8 to 10 years.

Hanson Type I Disc Disease

The fibrous ring of the disc hardens which allows the disc to be damaged and breakdown more easily. This allows the gelatinous center to explode through the fibrous ring. Hansen Type I disease typically affects long-backed short-legged dogs.

Hanson Type II Disc Disease

With Hansen Type II disc disease, the entire disc, gradually over an extended period of time, essential hardens and then bulges causing compression of the spinal cord. Hansen Type II disease is more common in older large breed dogs.

What Causes Intervertebral Disc Disease?

The cause of IVDD is impacted by the type of disc disease (Hansen Type I or II; described in the section above).

Typically, small breed dogs have Hansen Type I and usually suffer immediate signs. There may or may not be any history of trauma. But normally ANY forceful impact can cause damage and breakdown of the disc. Such actions as jumping and landing, twisting wrong or suddenly, or falling can cause one or more discs to rupture.

 With Hansen Type II disease, the onset of symptoms is subtle, often going undetected, so the cause can be harder to determine. But it can be the result of trauma, the progression of arthritis in the spine, or some form of impact like jumping or leaping.

Both types of disc disease are impacted by obesity since it puts added strain on the spine.

What You Should Do If Your Dog Has IVDD

If your dog exhibits any neck or back pain and /or neurological abnormalities such a weakness, inability to walk, etc., it is critical to contact a veterinarian immediately. Any delay in treatment can lead to a less favorable outcome.

It is essential that you are as detailed as possible when reporting your dog's symptoms. This allows the veterinarian, in addition to their physical examination findings, to determine more accurately the location of the problem.

Symptoms with neck IVDD

  • Pain in the neck area (just behind the head up to the shoulders)
  • Crying out with no clear reason
  • Possible front leg lameness or weakness
  • Signs of pain if the neck is moved or touched
  • Muscle tension in the neck region

Symptoms with thoracolumbar IVDD

  • Lower back pain, especially if touched
  • Reluctance to get up or move
  • Arched back
  • Can be sudden or progressive back leg weakness – can progress to paralysis
  • Inability to feel pain in the back legs

Treatment, non-surgical or surgical, and the potential outcome will be based on several factors. These are the following things your veterinarian will evaluate when determining your dog’s treatment decision:

  • The dog's age
  • The severity of the spinal injury
  • Location of the injury
  • Length of time of symptoms

Caring for a dog with IVDD, regardless of the treatment option, can be time-consuming and costly.

Surgery for IVDDBeagle with intervertebral disc disease after surgery

While surgery is not always required, surgery is often considered the best option for decreasing pain, restoring mobility, and potentially preventing future disc issues. Surgery can range from $3,000 to $8,000. The majority of the time, surgery is successful. Read more here for tips on making your dog heal and feel comfortable after surgery.

Non-surgical treatment for IVDD

Conservative, non-surgical treatment is typically used in mild cases. If, however, your dog doesn’t respond or symptoms progress, surgery may become necessary.

The purpose of conservative treatment is to relieve pain, improve mobility, and allow the spinal cord to heal. This type of treatment can include the following:

  • Strict Confinement– You MUST confine your dog to a very small room (no furniture or things to climb on) or a crate. This is normally necessary for 4 to 6 weeks.
  • Anti-inflammatory Medications – These medications that your veterinarian will provide will help with pain and swelling.
  • Laser Therapy – This can help relieve pain and inflammation and stimulate the spinal cord to heal.
  • PEMF Therapy – Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy is a non-invasive treatment that a dog doesn't feel. Your veterinarian may use a mat or loop-like device to administer the treatment. Some of these products can be prescribed and taken home for at-home care.
  • Weight Management – If your pet is obese or overweight, weight loss is essential. This may require a diet change.
  • Acupuncture – This can help with pain, inflammation, and healing
  • Physical Therapy – A rehabilitation practitioner will be able to provide a treatment plan that will aid in your dog’s recovery. It could include exercises you can do at home or water therapy in a rehabilitation facility.

Check out the "Prevention" section at the bottom of this page for tips on how to help your dog feel more comfortable and prevent this issue from happening again.

How Do You Know Things Are Improving?

The rate of improvement is dependent on the type of treatment your dog receives and the severity of trauma to their spinal cord.

If your dog had surgery, recovery is at least 6 to 8 weeks. The spinal cord is very slow at recovering. But typically, symptoms should not worsen, and gradually over time, you should see some positive changes.

You should typically see improvement within a couple of weeks in mild cases, but don't stop strict confinement and continue preventing them from exercising for a full 4 to 6 weeks.

frenchie with IVDD-unsplash

How Do You Know When Things Are Not Improving? What You Should Do.

Regardless of the treatment, surgical or non-surgical, if your dog’s symptoms progress or worsen in any manner, contact a veterinarian immediately. For example, if your dog just had back pain but now is having trouble walking or if your dog was able to urinate on their own but suddenly can’t – call a veterinarian.

Preventive Vet Shield

How to Prevent This from Happening in the Future

All dogs that have a history of disc disease should have restricted or controlled activity levels. This means no leaping, jumping, running, etc. But activities such as walking and swimming are ideal. Working with a rehabilitation practitioner can help you know the best ways to strengthen and exercise your dog.

If your dog is overweight or obese, speak with your veterinarian about a weight loss plan.

Walk your dog with a harness/leash instead of a collar/leash, especially if their disc issue was in their neck.

Elevate food and water bowls so that your dog does not have to lower their head and neck to eat or drink.

Use ramps for your dog to get in and out of the house as well as the car. Also, use ramps for pets to get on furniture and beds. Additionally, depending on your dog’s mobility, a sling or harness may be needed to help assist your dog with walking.

Non-slip mats or booties may be needed for some dogs so there is no risk of them slipping or sliding on different surfaces.

Starting your dog on an arthritis supplement is beneficial for helping slow the progression of degeneration as well as potentially helping with pain. Fish oil supplements are beneficial in helping manage inflammation.

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