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The cute miniature Dachshund stood braced on the exam table with eyes as big as saucers. When I touched his back he screeched in pain. His muscles were tense and the more he panicked, the more he hurt. The little guy was suffering from intervertebral disc disease, also known as IVDD.
If you’ve never heard of IVDD in dogs symptoms range from difficulty finding a comfortable resting position to paralysis of one or more limbs. The pain occurs when the soft disc between a dog’s vertebrae has squeezed out of the normal position, causing inflammation and pressure on sensitive nerve tissue.
The best thing you can do for a dog with acute back pain caused by IVDD is to strictly limit his activity (rest). Dogs with mild back pain benefit from having a warm heating pad set on low and wrapped in a towel placed over the sore area for 5-10 minutes at a time. Dogs with pain so severe they can’t get comfortable should see a veterinarian as soon as possible for pain medication.
What Causes Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) in Dogs?
The primary cause of intervertebral disc disease in dogs is degeneration of the cushioning disc between boney vertebrae in the spine. We call it disc herniation when the soft inner disc material squeezes out of the normal position, causing spinal nerve and spinal cord compression.
Intervertebral discs, or discs for short, are composed of two kinds of tissue. I like to say discs are like jelly donuts: they have a fibrous outer portion and a gel-like inner portion.
In an unhealthy intervertebral disc, the inner gel portion, or nucleus pulposus, dries out. (1). The intervertebral disc has little blood supply and doesn’t get repaired once it starts to degenerate.
Dried Out Discs Break Down
With the dehydration of the center of the intervertebral disc, the outer part, or annulus fibrosus, becomes weaker and more prone to injury. A normal activity like jumping off a chair or walking across the room can cause the outer part of the disc to tear then the gel center squeezes out. That’s when the big problems start.
The herniated disc material puts pressure on the spinal cord and the nerves that come off of it to innervate the rest of the body. Depending on how much nerve and spinal cord compression occur, a dog may experience mild to severe pain or complete paralysis of one or more limbs.
Lesions occur in the neck (cervical IVDD) or the thoracolumbar spine (from the last few ribs to the low back area).
A slipped disc in the neck area usually affects the front legs. A more severe case of cervical IVDD can cause clinical signs involving both the front and hind limbs.
Thoracolumbar intervertebral disc rupture affects the rear legs and the back half of the body.
Type 1 IVDD in Dogs
Although the causes of IVDD in dogs are not fully understood, we do know that some breeds inherit a tendency to have weak discs (Hansen Type I disc disease).
Hansen Type I IVDD affects dog breeds with short, crooked legs and/or short faces (chondrodystrophic breeds).
Dachshund, but Basset Hounds, Corgis and Shih-Tzus are most associated with Hansen Type I disc disease. These dogs experience a breakdown of disc material because they’re bred to have abnormal cartilage.
The genes that give chondrodystrophic breeds cute short legs and smushed faces also weaken the discs in the dog’s spine.
Type 2 IVDD in Dogs
Non-chondrodystrophic dogs experience a different version of intervertebral disc disease, called Hansen Type II disc disease. This form of disc herniation is caused by wear and tear rather than genetic abnormalities of disc tissue.
Dogs with Hansen Type II disease experience IVDD at an older age and different locations in the spine. Beagles, German Shepherds, and Dobermans are breeds known to be affected by Type II IVDD.
No matter the type of IVDD, symptoms in dogs are the same.
IVDD in Dogs Symptoms
When it comes to IVDD in dogs, symptoms can range from a vague decrease in activity to complete paralysis and even death in extreme (and uncommon) cases. In my experience, most people notice that the dog cries out at random times, can’t get comfortable when lying down and can’t jump without pain. I’ve even had people tell me their dog just seems “really scared!”
- Sudden onset of discomfort is common
- Yelping in pain at random times
- Pacing and panting, can’t get comfortable
- Crying when touched or picked up
- Tail held down
- Head held down
- Neck pain
- Reluctant to jump or climb stairs
- Not moving around as much as usual
- Pain/limping on a front leg (neck IVDD)
- Weakness in fore or hind limbs-wobbly gait, dragging toes
- Paralysis of one or more limbs (advanced cases)
- Loss of pain sensation to one or more limbs
- Hiding, acting fearful
- Not eating
- Avoiding urinating or defecating due to pain
- Grouchy attitude
In more serious cases, you might see uncoordinated movements such as wobbly gait, dragging the toes or stumbling. Occasionally, a dog will present with complete paralysis of the rear legs. Less commonly the front legs or all four legs are paralyzed.
Some cases start with pain and progress to wobbly gait and paralysis in hours or days. The most severe form of the disease- ascending myelomalacia -involves bleeding in the spinal column, leading to respiratory paralysis and death. Thankfully, this last form is rare and is not represented in the table below.
Diagnosing IVDD in Dogs
Making a 100% accurate diagnosis of IVDD requires advanced imaging techniques such as CT scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or myelogram. These all require that a dog be anesthetized or heavily sedated and are usually saved for more severe cases.
We can often get a pretty good idea of the diagnosis based on history, symptoms, and plain radiographs (x-rays). A complete physical exam is also invaluable for identifying and localizing neurological deficits in dogs with IVDD.
Dogs in severe pain often need pain medication before they can be positioned comfortably for x-rays. Based on the findings during the physical exam, the vet clinic staff will take radiographs of the neck or lower back.
What they’re looking for on the x-ray images are irregularities in the spaces between the vertebrae that indicate the disc material has been “squeezed” out of the normal position. Sometimes there are calcifications at the edges of the vertebrae that indicate chronic instability. All these signs make your vet suspicious of IVDD, but they don’t prove the diagnosis beyond a shadow of a doubt.
With plain radiographs, your vet is looking for other causes of back pain as much as she’s looking for signs of IVDD. Bones that look moth-eaten or swollen sometimes show up on spinal radiographs when dogs have fungal infections, bacterial infections or cancer.
Without advanced imaging, there’s always a chance that a less common disease process such as tumor, infection or embolism is causing the symptoms. An embolism happens when a fragment of cartilage blocks the blood supply to the dog’s spinal cord. All of these diseases can cause very similar symptoms to IVDD.
The decision on whether to pursue advanced imaging depends on the severity of the symptoms. Dogs with pain only often don’t undergo advanced imaging. Advanced imaging is usually recommended for dogs with wobbly gait or paralysis. Most, if not ALL, dogs preparing for surgery will have advanced imaging.
Conservative IVDD Treatment (without Surgery)
Dogs experiencing mild pain symptoms can recover with activity restriction and complete rest for a week or two. Rest and home remedies are appropriate for a dog who is experiencing moderate discomfort from overexertion. A couple of days of rest gives the body a chance to deal with the minor disc abnormalities and get back to normal.
Caring for a Dog with Mild to Moderate IVDD
- Massage: Gently massage the muscles on either side of the spine. Use the heel of your hands or flats of your fingertips to massage in circles up and down the back. Stop if your pet protests, but you can do this several times if she likes it. Massage helps decrease muscle spasms.
- Heat or Cooling: Use a heating pad set on low, wrapped in a towel for no more than 5 minutes at a time to prevent burns. If the heat doesn’t go over well, try a cold compress by using a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel. Apply this to the painful area for 10 minutes at a time, several times a day.
- Strict Rest: Avoid exercise walks for about a week. Try your best to prevent running, jumping and going up and down stairs. Don’t play tug games and don’t let other dogs engage the one with a sore back in vigorous play.
- Use a Harness Instead of a Collar: Especially if your dog has neck pain, but all dogs with IVDD benefit from the use of a harness instead of a neck collar for walking outdoors.
Medications for IVDD
Veterinarians can prescribe pain medication for dogs crying out in pain, not eating or having a major disruption of daily activities. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), muscle relaxers, general pain medications, and steroids act quickly to increase your dog’s comfort.
These drugs have varying degrees of side effects and are not appropriate for use in all dogs. Long-term use of NSAIDs and steroids is not desirable due to side effects.
Dog Slipped Disc Recovery Time
Dogs with Grade 1 IVDD usually feel a lot better after 7 days of rest with pain meds/anti-inflammatories.
Dogs with higher grades of IVDD take longer to recover. Most of the dogs I’ve seen with pain and only mild neurological symptoms take a period of several weeks to months to recover. And the sad truth is that some dogs never recover, but you won’t know that until you give them at least a few months to see what happens.
The most severely affected dogs have a poorer prognosis, but it’s far from hopeless! One study found that 58% of paralyzed dogs (IVDD Grade 5) who had undergone surgery recovered within 3 months after the surgery (3).
Recurrence of symptoms is common but does not occur in every case.
Natural and Holistic Treatment for IVDD Dogs
Alternative therapies for IVDD pain include acupuncture (4), cold laser (2), chiropractic manipulation, physical therapy, massage and herbal therapy.
Alternative therapies may be used alone or along with conventional meds. Some may even be used along with surgery. It’s important to get help from a veterinarian experienced with alternative therapies to have the best outcome. You can find one near you by looking at the following websites:
- American Association of Rehabilitation Veterinarians (AARV)
- American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA)
- Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (acupuncture, etc.)
- Curacore Integrative Medicine and Education Center (acupuncture, etc.)
- International Veterinary Acupuncture Society (IVAS)
In any case, rest is still recommended as an important part of recovery. Depending on how severe your dog’s situation is, you could spend $200 to $1000 and up on alternative therapies.
Transporting large dogs who are in pain may be difficult when repeated treatments are needed. But alternative therapies are a lot less invasive, less risky, and less expensive than surgery.
IVDD Spinal Surgery: Cost & Prognosis
Surgery is reserved for dogs who have a wobbly gait, paralysis, or intractable pain. IVDD surgery and recovery care are fairly expensive (total costs are in the range of $3500- $7000 and up) and time-consuming. The rate of recovery for dogs undergoing surgery depends on the severity of their disease.
The prognosis for recovery in dogs with thoracolumbar disc herniation is surprisingly good. The rule of thumb I go by is:
|Grade of IVDD (see table above)||Chances of Recovery with Cage Rest/Meds only||Chances of Recovery with Surgery|
IVDD surgery involves removing tissue around the ruptured intervertebral disc to decrease pressure on the spinal cord and adjacent nerves. It’s not an easy or simple surgery. Complete surgical recovery can take up to 6 months, although most dogs show improvement sooner.
Post-surgical IVDD dogs require nursing care during the recovery period to keep them clean and comfortable. Some dogs have difficulty urinating and defecating, especially if they can’t stand.
Surgery works pretty well for most dogs, but your dog can still experience problems at other disc spaces in the future. Dogs with abnormal tissue in one disc are at higher risk of experiencing similar problems in other discs. Surgeons can do preventive procedures on adjacent discs, but it’s not practical to do this at every disc space at risk of herniation.
Supplements for IVDD in Dogs
There are no proven methods or therapies to prevent IVDD. People have told me they try to prevent their dogs from jumping so they don’t “slip” a disc.
This is of little value since chondrodystrophic dogs could “slip a disc” just walking across the room. Their discs are abnormal enough that even low-level activity can cause the tissue to break down.
Glucosamine and Chondroitin
Nutritional supplements containing different forms of glucosamine and chondroitin are recommended, but not proven for the prevention of disc degeneration. The idea is to keep the disc from breaking down by increasing the supply of structural materials.
While glucosamine/chondroitin does seem to increase healing in discs, there is no clinical research showing that this works to prevent IVDD. I’d put glucosamine/chondroitin supplementation in the category of “probably won’t hurt and may help.” The product I usually recommend is Vetri Disc.
How to Help Prevent IVDD in Dogs
Keeping your dog lean can help in a couple of ways. First, there is less weight putting stress on the spine and second, obesity increases general body inflammation. Increased inflammation may be associated with weaker tissues or decreased ability to recover from injuries.
Regular, controlled exercise appropriate to the dog’s age, conformation and fitness level is recommended. Exercise builds stronger muscles to help support the spine, may contribute to lower inflammation in the body and helps prevent obesity.
Regular Chiropractic Care
Regular chiropractic adjustments are recommended by some practitioners for prevention as well as treatment of IVDD. In dogs with chronic, life-disrupting pain, surgery may also be considered to remove the offending disc material.
- Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a common cause of pain and other symptoms in dogs.
- The cause of IVDD in dogs is degeneration and breakdown of the tissue that forms the cushioning disc between vertebrae. The disc material “squeezes” out of the normal position and puts pressure on nerves to cause pain.
- Symptoms of IVDD range from vague pain to paralysis and death.
- Treatment depends on the severity of intervertebral disc disease and may include rest, anti-inflammatory and pain medication, acupuncture and other alternative therapy, or surgery.
- There are no treatments known to reliably prevent IVDD in dogs. Glucosamine/chondroitin supplements may help but are not a sure thing. Recommendations include: maintaining a normal weight, high-quality nutrition, regular supplementation with natural anti-inflammatories and exercise.
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- Bach, F. C., Willems, N., Penning, L. C., Ito, K., Meij, B. P., & Tryfonidou, M. A. (2014). Potential regenerative treatment strategies for intervertebral disc degeneration in dogs. BMC veterinary research, 10(1).
- Draper, W. E., Schubert, T. A., Clemmons, R. M., & Miles, S. A. (2012). Low-level laser therapy reduces time to ambulation in dogs after hemilaminectomy: a preliminary study. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 53(8), 465-469.
- Jeffery, N. D., Barker, A. K., Hu, H. Z., Alcott, C. J., Kraus, K. H., Scanlin, E. M., … & Levine, J. M. (2016). Factors associated with recovery from paraplegia in dogs with loss of pain perception in the pelvic limbs following intervertebral disk herniation. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 248(4), 386-394.
- Hayashi, A. M., Matera, J. M., & de Campos Fonseca Pinto, A. C. B. (2007). Evaluation of electroacupuncture treatment for thoracolumbar intervertebral disk disease in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 231(6), 913-918.
- Melrose, J., Roberts, S., Smith, S., Menage, J., & Ghosh, P. (2002). Increased nerve and blood vessel ingrowth associated with proteoglycan depletion in an ovine annular lesion model of experimental disc degeneration. Spine, 27(12), 1278-1285.
Last update on 2023-09-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API