Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a common spinal condition in dogs. Canine IVDD is caused by changes in the cushioning disc between the bones of the spine. Dogs with long backs and short legs have an increased risk of the condition.

The symptoms range from mild and mysterious to sudden and severe. It’s often difficult for dog owners to recognize the early signs of IVDD. But the sooner you identify the problem, the sooner your dog can get treatment and feel better.

In this article, we will explore everything you need to know about the stages of IVDD in dogs, plus its causes, symptoms, and treatment options. We will also discuss some ways to lower your dog’s risks, as well as home care tips for dogs with mild symptoms. 

What Is Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) in Dogs?

Intervertebral discs are cushioning pads of tissue between the bones of the spine. They allow a dog’s spine to be flexible. 

Two kinds of tissue make up intervertebral discs. There is a fibrous outer part and a gel-like inner part, making them kind of like jelly donuts.

When the inner gel part, or nucleus pulposus, gets dried out it starts to degenerate. Without a strong blood supply, the disc is unable to repair the degenerating material. (1) 

Next, the outer part of the disc, 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, allowing the gel center to squeeze out. This is called a slipped or ruptured disc. 

The material that squeezes out causes inflammation and pressure on the nerves that come out of the spinal cord and travel to other body parts. Pressure on spinal nerves causes pain in mild cases and paralysis in the worst cases. 

3 Types of IVDD

Researchers and veterinarians recognize two types of IVDD that can occur in dogs. These are known as Hansen Type I and Hansen Type II intervertebral disc disease.

Type I IVDD occurs in dog breeds with short legs and/or short faces, such as Dachshunds, Basset Hounds, Corgis, and Shih-Tzus. A genetic variation causes abnormal cartilage development that can lead to weak spinal discs in these dogs. 

Type II IVDD affects dog breeds with normal cartilage. Wear and tear over time leads to this type of IVDD. Type II occurs more gradually over months to years.

A third type is associated with traumatic injury or strenuous exercise.  Symptoms occur secondary to spinal contusion, or bruising, without long-lasting spinal compression. 

Location of IVDD Lesions

Due to the anatomy of the spine, slipped discs can only occur in the mid-to-lower back or in the neck. Symptoms vary depending on where the affected disc(s) are located. 

Thoracolumbar IVDD occurs between the rear part of the rib cage and the pelvis. Symptoms affect the abdomen, low back and hind legs. 

Cervical IVDD occurs when a disc ruptures in the neck. Symptoms are mostly noted in the neck, shoulders and front legs. Severe neck IVDD can also cause hind leg weakness or paralysis.

Symptoms of IVDD in Dogs 

Symptoms of IVDD in dogs can range from a slight decrease in activity to complete paralysis and even death in rare cases. Early signs of the disease include crying out at random times, restlessness when trying to lie down and a reluctance to jump. I’ve even had clients tell me their dog just looks “really scared!”

Symptoms are caused by pain and neurological dysfunction. Here are some more specific symptoms you might notice:

  • Avoiding urinating or defecating due to pain
  • Crying out in pain at random times
  • Crying when touched or picked up
  • Diarrhea
  • Grouchy attitude
  • Head held down
  • Hiding, acting fearful
  • Jumping up suddenly as if startled
  • Limping on a front leg 
  • Loss of feeling in one or more limbs
  • Neck pain
  • Not eating
  • Not moving around as much as usual
  • Pacing and panting
  • Paralysis of one or more limbs 
  • Reluctant to jump on furniture or climb stairs
  • Shaking, trembling
  • Strong pain response to palpation
  • Sudden onset of discomfort
  • Tail held down
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness in front or hind legs 

You may notice a wobbly gait, scuffing their toes, or stumbling. In some cases, complete paralysis causes the inability to stand and dragging of the legs.  Although the hind legs are most commonly affected, symptoms may affect just the front legs or all four legs.

Some dogs have progressive symptoms that start with pain and progress to a wobbly gait and paralysis within a few hours or days. Ascending myelomalacia is a rare but severe form of disease caused by bleeding in the spinal column. The condition leads to respiratory paralysis and ultimately death. 

Stages of IVDD Dogs

IVDD in dogs classified based on their symptoms from Stage 1 (mild) to Stage 5 (severe). Your vet will need to do a neurological exam to tell which stage your dog is in. In my experience, Stage 1 symptoms are much more common than Stage 5 symptoms.

  • Stage 1: Symptoms of pain only. Walking normally, urinating normally, can feel a hard toe pinch on affected legs.
  • Stage 2: Pain plus wobbly or weak ability to walk; able to move limbs but not very well, urinating normally, can feel a hard toe pinch on the affected legs.
  • Stage 3: Pain plus paralysis of one or more legs; urinating normally, can feel a hard toe pinch on the affected legs.
  • Stage 4: Pain plus paralysis of one or more legs, either can’t urinate or may be dribbling urine, can feel a hard toe pinch on affected legs.
  • Stage 5: Pain plus paralysis of one or more legs, either can’t urinate or may be dribbling urine, cannot feel a hard toe pinch on affected legs.

Every stage of IVDD is cause for concern and care from a veterinarian. Dogs showing symptoms of Stage 2 and higher need emergency veterinary care. Dogs showing Stage 5 symptoms are the most severe cases that may require emergency spinal surgery. 

Causes of IVDD in Dogs

IVDD is caused by the herniation of an intervertebral disc that presses on the nerves around it. The causes of herniation usually involve both genetic factors and some degree of trauma. Less frequently, trauma alone can cause disease.

Certain dog breeds are more prone to IVDD due to their genetic makeup. Breeds prone to Type I IVDD include American Cocker Spaniel, Basset Hounds, Corgis, Dachshunds, Pekingese, and Shih-Tzus. These dogs have abnormal disc cartilage that is more likely to allow herniation.

Other factors that may contribute to IVDD in dogs include obesity and advanced age. Blunt force trauma also increases the risk of IVDD. 

Radiograph of a dog's spine (IVDD in dogs stages)

Diagnosing IVDD in Dogs

In mild cases, a presumptive diagnosis of IVDD can be made based on the dog’s history, symptoms, physical exam and plain radiographs (x-rays). 

To definitively diagnose IVDD in dogs, advanced imaging techniques like CT scans, MRIs, or myelograms are needed. These procedures require heavy sedation or anesthesia and are usually reserved for severe cases. 

Plain Radiographs

Plain radiographs are simple and affordable tests that can suggest the possibility of IVDD. Radiographs can also help eliminate other diseases such as infection and cancer as causes.

Irregularities in the spaces between vertebrae found on radiographs may indicate the disc material has shifted out of place. But since these changes also occur in normal dogs, they’re not enough to prove for sure that the dog has IVDD. 

Advanced Imaging

Advanced imaging techniques, such as computerized tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, or myelogram can help vets make a definite diagnosis of IVDD. They can also identify diseases with symptoms similar to IVDD, such as tumors, infections, or circulation problems. 

Advanced imaging techniques are recommended for dogs with severe symptoms such as a wobbly gait or paralysis. Almost all dogs will have some sort of special imaging done before going to surgery. 

Medical Treatment of IVDD (without Surgery)

Dogs experiencing mild pain symptoms often recover with activity restriction and complete rest for a week or two. Along with pain meds, these are the main treatments for dogs with IVDD in Stages 1, 2 and 3. 

Prescription pain medication can make a dog more comfortable during their recovery. Your vet may prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), muscle relaxers, opioids, gabapentin or steroids. Most dogs need medication for about 1-2 weeks. They should be re-evaluated by a vet if their symptoms don’t improve.

Other non-surgical treatments include cold laser therapy, acupuncture and physical therapy. Be sure to consult your vet before starting any treatment.

The benefits of conservative IVDD treatment are that the costs are lower than surgery. It’s also non-invasive and usually doesn’t require anesthesia or hospitalization. Drawbacks of medical treatment include a slower recovery time, medication side effects, and prolonged nursing care requirements. 

Surgical Treatment of IVDD in Dogs

Dogs with Stage 4 or 5 IVDD may need surgery for the best chance of recovery. IVDD surgery involves removing a bit of bony tissue from the vertebrae to relieve pressure on the spinal cord and adjacent nerves. The prognosis is fair to good with somewhere around 50% of dogs regaining their ability to walk. (6)

It can take up to 6 months for complete recovery after this major surgery. Dogs need a fair amount of nursing care during the recovery period to keep them clean and comfortable. 

Dogs with a genetic predisposition can develop herniated discs at other places in their spines in the future. Surgeons can do preventive procedures on adjacent discs, but it’s not practical to do this to every disc space at risk of herniation. 

Surgery has some advantages like a lower chance of more slipped discs in the same spinal area, faster recovery, and better prognosis for severe cases. However, it also has some disadvantages, such as a higher cost, an increased risk of complications, and the chance that the dog may not recover even after an expensive surgery.

Prevention of IVDD in Dogs

There is no way to prevent disc herniation in dogs with a genetic predisposition. Degenerative changes start very early in life and once they start, there is no way to stop them. These degenerated discs have a high risk of herniation. 

Dog owners have tried to prevent IVDD in high-risk dogs by limiting their activity and giving glucosamine supplements. Although we don’t have much scientific data, veterinarians believe these interventions don’t help much. 

In 2015, a survey was conducted among Dachshund owners to determine the lifestyle factors that could influence the risk of IVDD. The survey found that dogs who got less than 30 minutes of exercise per day, were not allowed to jump on furniture, and took glucosamine supplements were actually more likely to experience IVDD. (7) 

Obesity is believed to be a risk factor. Keeping dogs at their ideal weight may help stave off IVDD.

Home Care for Dogs with Mild IVDD

Veterinary care is very important in your dog’s recovery from IVDD. Be sure to follow your vet’s advice and have your pet rechecked if they’re not recovering. Here are some general tips for home care of dogs with mild 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. Massage helps decrease muscle spasms.
  • Heating or Cooling: Use a heating pad set on low, wrapped in a towel for about 5-10 minutes at a time on the sore area. You can also 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.
  • Strict Rest: Avoid exercise walks for about a week. Prevent running, jumping and going up and down stairs. Don’t play tug games and avoid vigorous play with other dogs.
  • 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.

Key Points

  1. Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a common spinal condition that affects many dogs, especially those with long backs and short legs.
  2. IVDD occurs when the intervertebral discs in the spine degenerate and put pressure on nearby nerves.
  3. Symptoms of IVDD in dogs include pain and neurological problems. Symptoms can affect the neck, shoulders, back and legs.
  4. It is important to recognize early signs of IVDD and seek treatment. Most dogs can recover with the help of medical and surgical treatments. 
  5. There is no surefire way to prevent IVDD in genetically predisposed dogs.

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  2. 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.
  3. 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.
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