Intervertebral disc disease is a major cause of neurological dysfunction in dogs, and affected dogs experience significant pain and may be left paralyzed. Our Providence Vet team wants to answer some frequently asked questions about this condition in case your dog is at risk.

Question: What is intervertebral disc disease in dogs?

Answer: To understand intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), you must first understand normal vertebral anatomy. The spine is composed of numerous vertebral bones connected by joints called intervertebral discs. This construction allows the spine to be flexible while protecting the delicate spinal cord that runs through the central vertebral canal. The intervertebral discs have an outer fibrous shell (i.e., the annulus fibrosus) and an inner jelly-like center (i.e., the nucleus pulposus). Intervertebral disc changes can lead to IVDD, resulting in two main disease manifestations.

  • Hansen type 1 disc disease — In type one, the inner nucleus pulposus mineralizes and can no longer disperse forces evenly, leading to herniation through the outer annulus fibrosus. If the herniation occurs upward, the spinal cord can be compressed and bruised. If the herniation is to the side, nerves exiting the spinal cord are damaged.
  • Hansen type 2 disc disease — In type two, the outer annulus fibrosus degenerates over time, causing the structure to collapse and protrude upward to compress the spinal cord. 

Q: What dogs are at risk for intervertebral disc disease?

A: Any dog can experience IVDD, but overweight dogs and certain breeds are at higher risk. These include:

  • Chondrodystrophoid breeds — Breeds such as dachshunds, beagles, shih tzus, Lhasa apsos, and Pekingese, whose normal cartilage development has been genetically altered to cause a short, stout appearance, are most commonly affected by type one disc disease. Signs in these dogs typically occur between 3 and 6 years of age.
  • Large breeds — Large breeds, such as German shepherds, doberman pinschers, and Labrador retrievers, are most commonly affected by type two disc disease. Signs in these dogs typically occur between 5 and 12 years of age.

Q: What are intervertebral disc disease signs in dogs?

A: IVDD signs can vary widely, and the exact signs will depend on lesion location. Potential signs include:

  • Pain — In most cases, the dog experiences pain in the area of the lesion, and they may vocalize or pull away when this area is touched.
  • Lowered head — If your dog has a neck lesion, they may have difficulty moving their head, and may keep their head lowered to avoid pain.
  • Drunken gait — In some cases, dogs cross their legs when they walk, and appear drunk.
  • Walking on knuckles — Affected dogs may not be able to locate their feet, and may walk with their feet knuckled over.
  • Dragging limbs — If the lesion is in the lower back, the dog’s front limbs may be completely normal, but they drag their hind end.
  • Incontinence — In some cases, the dog cannot control urination and defecation. 
  • Inability to move or stand — In severe cases, an affected dog cannot move or stand.

Q: How is intervertebral disc disease diagnosed in dogs?

A: Dogs who present with neck or back pain or impaired mobility will undergo diagnostic tests, including:

  • Neurological examination — A neurological examination helps localize the affected spinal area. Five areas are assessed—the mentation, gait, reflexes, general proprioception (i.e., the ability to locate one’s limbs), and pain. A dog affected by IVDD should have normal mentation and cranial nerves. 
  • X-rays — Plain X-rays can identify IVDD in about 60% of cases, and are useful for ruling out conditions such as fracture and dislocation.
  • Myelography — Myelography requires general anesthesia and involves injecting a contrast dye around the spinal cord to highlight the compressed area. This technique successfully identifies the affected area in 85% to 95% of cases. 
  • Advanced imaging — Advanced imaging, using computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging, may be required to accurately diagnose some IVDD cases.

Q: How is intervertebral disc disease treated in dogs?

A: Treatment depends on the condition severity. Options include:

  • Medical management — If your dog’s signs are mild and started recently, medical management is a reasonable choice. This treatment includes:
  • Cage rest — Strict confinement for at least three weeks is typically required, and another two to three weeks may be necessary to gradually resume normal activity.
  • Icing — The affected area can be iced for 10 to 15 minutes several times a day to help decrease inflammation.
  • Medications — Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, steroids, and muscle relaxers are frequently prescribed for pain and inflammation.
  • Physical therapy — Exercises to help regain strength and flexibility help facilitate the dog’s recovery.
  • Surgical management — If the spinal cord compression is causing significant pain or impaired mobility, surgery may be necessary to relieve the pressure and prevent further damage. Several surgical approaches are available, depending on lesion location. Intense nursing care is required after spinal surgery, and dogs may take two to four weeks before they recover the ability to walk.

Q: What is a dog’s prognosis if they are affected by intervertebral disc disease?

A: The longer neurological signs have been present, the poorer the dog’s prognosis. If your dog can’t walk but has deep pain sensation in at least one limb, they have an 83% to 93% chance of recovery with surgery. If your dog has been unable to walk for less than 48 hours and has no deep pain perception, their success drops to 50% to 60%. If they have been unable to walk for more than 48 hours, with no deep pain perception, their recovery prognosis is poor.

IVDD is a serious condition, and affected dogs should receive veterinary care as soon as possible. If your dog has back pain or difficulty walking, contact our Providence Vet team, so we can determine what is causing the problem, and help alleviate their pain.