Symptoms & Treatments for Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) in Dogs

This age-related, degenerative condition can lead to a host of painful symptoms for your dog. Seen more often in some breeds than others, this common spinal disease typically requires surgery to correct. Our Ventura vets list symptoms, causes and treatments for intervertebral disc disease in dogs. 


What is intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) in dogs? 

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a spinal disease commonly diagnosed in dogs that can also sometimes impact cats. Typically, dogs with intervertebral disc disease need spinal surgery to address the issue.

Dogs’ intervertebral discs are made of cartilage surrounded by a ring of fibrous tissue, which cushions the vertebrae surrounding the spinal cord. These discs are located between each set of vertebrae, except for the first two.

When your dog’s discs are healthy, they absorb shock, provide flexibility to the spine and allow your dog’s body to move as it needs to (flexing, twisting and extending) while doing high-energy activities such as running and jumping. There are two parts to each disc: fibrous annulus fibrosis and a gelatinous center referred to as nucleus pulposus.

Types of Intervertebral Disc Disease

There are three types of IVDD you should know about:

Type 1

The middle portion of the disc (nucleus pulposus) can become ruptured due to tears in the outer part of the disc (annulus fibrosis). Also called a slipped disc, this type of disc disease can happen anywhere along the spine. Symptoms may include a sudden inability to walk.

When the nucleus pulposus loses normal water content, calcification can occur. The middle part of the back is especially prone to disc herniations, which is where most of these happen. Clinical symptoms can vary from pain to paralysis as the disc becomes strained to an intolerable level and compression occurs in the spinal cord.

Small-breed dogs two years and older — including toy or miniature poodles, Shih Tzus, Beagles, Basset Hounds, Dachshunds and others — most commonly experience Type 1 IVDD. Larger breeds including the Rottweiler and Labrador Retriever can also be impacted.

This type of IVDD is painful. Severe cases are classified as emergencies that should be immediately assessed by your veterinarian.

Type 2

Typically, this condition progresses more gradually and may or may not cause pain. Caused by a chronic bulging of the outer part of the disc (the annulus) on the spinal cord, this can become chronically compressed and lead to atrophy.

If the annulus becomes torn and fragmented, the fragmented piece may compress the spinal cord. With this type, symptoms may develop slowly and quietly but still progress.

We see this type of IVDD most often in middle-aged to older (5 to 12 years) medium and large-breed dogs. There may be symptoms similar to those with Type 1 IVDD.

Type 3

This type is typically caused by heavy exercise or trauma that results in a sudden tear in the annulus, which can bring on the disease suddenly. Though this type of IVDD does not lead to chronic compression of the spinal cord, it is a painful condition that can cause your dog to have difficulty walking and controlling his hind limbs.

Severe cases can turn fatal if the spinal cord softens and dies (which affects the nerves your dog uses to breathe), leading to respiratory arrest. Complete paralysis may occur. Patients that survive may attend physiotherapy and rehabilitation, and recover without surgery.

What are symptoms of Intervertebral Disc Disease?

Symptoms will vary depending on which type of IVDD your dog has. Signs can include:

  • Urinary incontinence
  • Limping on one or both front limbs
  • Neck or back pain
  • Holding the back low
  • Shivering or panting
  • Hunched back or stiff appearance
  • Weak, uncoordinated movement within hind limbs or four limbs
  • Difficulty breathing or paralysis in four limbs (severe cases that meet criteria for surgical emergencies)

Most owners will find it very difficult to watch severe cases progress as these can involve inability to experience painful sensations, lost bladder function and/or paralysis.

What causes Intervertebral Disc Disease? Is it curable or treatable?

IVDD may ultimately result in herniation of the disc and compression of the spinal cord. Dogs with short, curved limbs (Daschunds, Shih Tzus, Lucas Terriers, and others) are more likely to experience early degenerative changes that can lead to calcification.

IVDD Surgery for Dogs

Cost of treatment for IVDD in dogs will depend on your pet’s specific condition, the procedure and treatment approach used, and many other factors.

To diagnose the condition, your vet will use advanced diagnostic imaging and perform a comprehensive physical examination.

He or she may be able to treat a mild case of IVDD conservatively by restricting movement (which would involve confining your dog to a cage) and pain relief, though dogs suffering from paralysis will probably require surgery. Your dog may be able to walk again pain-free.

If your dog is not responding to pain, this is a surgical emergency and prognosis for improvement is unfortunately poor.

The surgery may take between 1 and 3 hours, depending on the complexity of the procedure. Your dog will then need to rest and be monitored and assessed while he recovers. Physiotherapy will also be essential to his progress (your vet can make specific recommendations regarding this).

Long-term, dogs who do not regain their ability to walk may use a custom-built mobility cart. However, their bladder control may be limited. You may need to empty his bladder manually (owners can learn how to do this as they prepare to take their dog home).

Following successful spinal surgery, dogs do not typically experience problems with the same disc. However, remaining discs can degenerate and cause further problems. If possible, other discs are fenestrated during the procedure to reduce the risk of recurring IVDD.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Do you suspect your dog is suffering from IVDD or other serious disease? Contact our team at Veterinary Medical and Surgical Group (VMSG) immediately to book an appointment. Our Ventura vets are experienced in identifying and treating many illnesses and conditions in dogs.

Invertebral Disc Disease in Dogs | Ventura Animal Hospital

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