IVDD in dogs (intervertebral disc disease) has a range of symptoms, from fairly mild to very serious. On one end of the spectrum is mild pain, with paralysis on the other end, and most dogs with the diagnosis falling somewhere in between.
Causes of IVDD
IVDD is a disease that effects the spinal cord over time, but it might not be apparent until there is a trigger. Unfortunately, a dog who appears to be completely healthy one day may take a fall or jump in such a way that a disc becomes ruptured. IVDD is a degenerative (gradual) process, but a jump or fall can damage a disc that has already been weakened by IVDD and bring on an acute phase of the disease.
The disease is caused when the cushioning discs (which function like shock absorbers) between the vertebrae of the spinal column begin to harden. Eventually, they may harden to the point that they can no longer adequately cushion the spinal vertebrae.
Consequently, a forceful jump or bad landing can cause a disc (or discs) to burst and press into the nerves running through the spinal cord. This can be painful and cause nerve damage and/or eventual paralysis.
Alternatively, the hardening of the discs can eventually cause them to bulge and compress the spinal cord. This can damage the nerve impulses such that bladder and bowel control can be impaired, in addition to potentially causing paralysis.
Checklist of IVDD Symptoms
Symptoms can emerge gradually or be intermittent or sudden. While any dog breed can experience IVDD, some breeds are more prone to the disease. Early intervention is crucial in order to minimize the possibility of permanent nerve damage. Here are some common symptoms of IVDD:
- Stiffness of neck, limbs, or back
- Dragging rear leg(s)
- Knuckling under
- Obvious weakness or pain
- Lowered head when standing
- Increased sensitivity to movement or touch
- Impaired gait
- Back/muscle spasms
Which Breeds Are Most Susceptible?
Certain breeds are more likely to get IVDD due to a disorder of their cartilage formation called chondrodystrophic. The disease generally occurs in these breeds at age 3 to 6 years old. Typical breeds of this type include:
- Bassett Hounds
- Cocker Spaniels
- Dachshunds (most common)
- Shih Tzus
Nonchondrodystrophic breeds that are often affected by IVDD include:
- German Shepherds
- Labrador Retrievers
- Doberman Pinschers
Overweight dogs in any breed are more likely to get IVDD.
Diagnosis and Treatment of IVDD
A veterinary examination will generally include a neurological exam, X-rays, and/or special imaging (myelogram, CT scan, MRI) to locate the source of spinal injury.
If the diagnosis reveals mild to moderate injury, treatment may include the administration of steroids and anti-inflammatory medications to reduce swelling and pain, with confined rest required for four to six weeks or so.
In more severe cases, surgery may be advised to open up the space around the spinal cord. Surgery has a better chance of being successful if the dog has not lost the ability to walk and if surgery is done very soon after diagnosis (within 24 hours). If a dog has already lost the ability to walk before surgery, the prognosis is not optimal.
Post-surgical physical rehabilitation is often recommended for muscle strengthening. If a surgery is not successful, a dog wheelchair is often recommended, which can give the dog a healthy, active life despite the disease.
There are some easy and practical things a pet owner can do to minimize the risk of IVDD for their pets:
- Keep your dog’s weight down to reduce neck and back stress, especially for breeds predisposed to the disease.
- Use a harness when going on walks to reduce neck stress that can occur if using a neck leash.
- Minimize jumping on/off furniture
- Finally, consider a back brace to minimize risk.