IVDD / Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment & More
Similar to a human's spine, a dog's spine is made up of bony vertebrae with cushions or discs in between. Intervertebral disc disease in dogs (IVDD) occurs when there is a protrusion of disc material in the spinal canal, resulting in pain, weakness or the inability to walk. IVDD in dogs occurs in the neck and the mid to lower back regions of the spine. Read on to learn more about the types and signs of IVDD as well as treatment options.
Types of IVDD in Dogs
There are a few different types of intervertebral disc disease in dogs, but the most common type occurs in chondrodystrophic breeds (dogs with short legs and long bodies, like dachshunds) and is normally acute in onset. Of the other two types, one is more chronic and progressive in onset and more commonly affects older, large breed dogs, while the other is acute in onset and is commonly associated with trauma or strenuous exercise.
Signs of Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs
While some signs of pain associated with IVDD in dogs can be vague, some of the most common include:
- Limb weakness or trouble walking
- Inability to walk on one or more limbs
- Overall decreased activity
- Inability to get comfortable to rest
- Reluctance to jump or climb stairs
- Lack of appetite
If your dog is experiencing signs of pain, further evaluation by a veterinarian is recommended.
Diagnosis of IVDD in Dogs
The first thing to understand is that IVDD often presents similarly to many other diseases that affect the spinal cord. However, there are often clues in the history and exam that will make it more likely than some of the alternatives. Intervertebral disc disease in dogs may be suspected once you provide your vet with your dog's breed, age and description of signs you are noticing at home and can be further supported by signs on physical exam such as neck/back pain. Your veterinarian will also use a neurological exam to help localize what part of the spinal cord has been damaged as well as assess the severity of the damage that has occurred, which is extremely important for deciding what additional diagnostics or treatment options may be recommended. Depending on the severity of the injury, your veterinarian may provide you with an emergency referral to a neurologist or surgeon for advanced imaging, and potentially surgery.
Advanced imaging, most commonly an MRI or CT scan, may be necessary to diagnose IVDD in dogs. These scans are able to diagnose the location and severity of the disc protrusion. Advanced imaging modalities are normally done under the guidance of a veterinary neurologist or surgeon and will require your dog to be under anesthesia. Additional diagnostics including collection and evaluation of spinal fluid are also usually performed to help guide interpretation of the imaging findings.
Treatment of Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs
If the dog's signs are mild based, medical management with medications and strict exercise restriction may be an appropriate course of action. Medications commonly used in treatment of IVDD in dogs include pain medication, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID) and muscle relaxant medication. The concurrent strict exercise restriction is often the more challenging part of medical management, but it's essential to allow the disc to heal. Strict exercise restriction for dogs under medical management for IVDD means no running, jumping on furniture, and playing as well as limited or no stairs (follow the specific directions of your veterinarian). Exercise restrictions are usually observed for a period of four to eight weeks. As difficult as it may be for the pet parent, restricting them during this time frame will optimize their chance for recovery.
If the condition is not improving or worsens despite following the medical management guidelines, a follow-up evaluation, ideally with a veterinary neurologist, is recommended. This sometimes happens due to no fault of the pet parent. Surgery for removal of disc material is recommended when a dog's signs do not improve or worsen despite medications and strict rest or when, at initial presentation to a vet, the signs are moderate to severe.
In some cases, a dog's clinical signs may progress to a point beyond which surgery can help and there's a very low chance of recovering limb function and being able to walk again. In dogs where only the hind limbs are affected, getting fitted for a dog cart (wheelchair) by a vet, is a potential option to help maintain mobility and independence. In some cases where there is minimal chance of recovery of the ability to walk and a dog cart is not a viable option for the dog and/or pet parent, the hard decision of saying goodbye and electing humane euthanasia may be in the best interest of the dog.
Physical rehabilitation with a licensed veterinary physical rehabilitation therapist can help maintain and build muscle mass and aid the restoration of coordination and strength following surgery. It can also be beneficial in conjunction with medication management in some dogs with IVDD.
Prevention of IVDD in Dogs
Unfortunately, there is no way to completely prevent intervertebral disc disease in dogs. However, you can do things to help minimize stress on the spine, especially if you have a high-risk breed. Maintaining a good healthy weight puts less stress on the back, body and joints. Weight maintenance can be achieved via daily exercise and nutritional management. Limiting jumping, especially up or down from significant heights, in chondrodystrophic dogs is also recommended as this puts extra stress on their spine. Using doggie stairs for getting into their pet parent's bed or on and off of furniture can be helpful in this endeavor.
Jessica Seid is an emergency veterinarian practicing in the New England area. She is graduate of North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine and has been in the field for 10 plus years. When not at work helping her patients, she enjoys spending time with her husband, daughter and their French Bulldog.