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Intervertebral disc disease, often abbreviated IVDD, is a serious spinal disease that impacts thousands of dogs every year. IVDD is a genetic disease that affects 1 out of every four dachshunds. Although IVDD most commonly occurs in short dog breeds with long backs, any dog breed can get IVDD.
What is IVDD?
IVDD is the most common neurological condition impacting dogs. Like humans, a dog’s spine is made of a series of bones called vertebrae running from skull to tail. Inside each vertebra is a hole where the nerves of the spinal column lay, which control a dog’s movement. Below the spinal cord in each vertebra is a soft material called the intervertebral disk. In dogs with IVDD, the disc becomes brittle and can rupture.
When a spinal disc ruptures, it shifts out of position and applies pressure to the spinal cord, which restricts communication with the brain and, in turn, impacts a dog’s ability to move. The location of the disc rupture determines where and to what extreme a dog’s mobility is affected. IVDD is the leading cause of paralysis in dogs and can occur anywhere along the spine.
Along with mobility problems, common signs a dog has IVDD include:
Urinary incontinence and loss of bladder control
Difficulty walking or standing
Shaking and whimpering
Crying out in pain
Reluctance to move or walk
Limping and lameness
A veterinarian must immediately see dogs exhibiting any of the above signs. Many dogs with IVDD experience sudden paralysis or weakened back legs. Immediate treatment is key to a dog’s recovery.
Understanding the Severity and Stages of IVDD in Dogs
A spinal disc can rupture suddenly or slowly over time. An intervertebral disc that degenerates and ruptures over several weeks may be less painful than a sudden disc rupture. In mild cases of intervertebral disc disease, a dog may experience wobbly steps and some back pain. In severe cases of IVDD, a dog can be left completely paralyzed and completely lose pain sensation in its feet.
Each IVDD stage will present with different symptoms, and based on your dog’s diagnosis, their treatment plan will vary. Here is a brief explanation of the different stages of IVDD:
IVDD Stage 1
In stage 1 IVDD is the least severe form of intervertebral disc disease. A dog will show signs of neck or back pain at this stage but no other deficits. Although in pain, the dog can still walk and stand normally, but movements may be stiff. Dogs at this stage typically undergo strict crate rest until the herniated disc resolves itself. The disc rupture usually self-corrects within a few days. However, it’s normal for dogs to hold their head lower and be reluctant to turn their head until fully healed.
IVDD Stage 2
A dog in stage 2 IVDD can still walk but struggle with its paw placement. Proprioception deficits such as paw knuckling are common. A lack of coordination and ataxia is also normal. Back pain can range from moderate to severe and usually occurs in the neck or lower back. Because there is more pain, dogs may yelp or get aggressive when moving. Treatment for stage 2 IVDD varies. 50% of dogs will undergo medical management and crate rest, with the other half choosing a surgical approach.
IVDD Stage 3
At stage 3, a dog can still move their legs but can not stand or walk independently. One or more paws may be knuckling or dragging while walking when the dog is standing. Surgical treatment for dogs at this stage is close to 100% successful. A more conservative approach has closer to a 50% success rate.
IVDD Stage 4
This is the stage where you begin to see true mobility problems from IVDD. In stage 4, the dog is paralyzed and unable to walk but maintains a deep pain sensation. A dog’s pain sensation is tested by judging its response to a pinch of the toes. In addition, a stage 4 dog may not be able to control its bladder or bowels. Surgery is often recommended at this stage, with under a 90% surgical success rate. In most stage 4 IVDD cases, timing is vital for a good prognosis. Most veterinary surgeons will recommend immediate surgery for the dog to regain the function of the legs.
IVDD Stage 5
Stage 5 IVDD is the most severe stage of the condition. Dogs with stage 5 IVDD are paralyzed and have no deep pain sensation in their feet. If a dog can not feel their toes, it will not walk or bear weight on its back legs. Therefore, a conservative approach is not the best option for dogs at this severe stage. Surgery isn’t always successful at stage 5; the average success rate of IVDD surgery is about 50%. At this point, surgery is an emergency and should be performed within the first 24 hours of onset.
Treating Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs
The stage and severity of a dog’s IVDD determine the right course of treatment. The sooner your dog receives veterinary help, the better the chances of a full recovery. There are two standard treatment options for intervertebral disc disease: conservative medical management and surgery. More advanced stages of IVDD prefer a surgical option, with the more mild IVDD stages leaning towards conservative options.
Conservative Treatment Options for IVDD
A non-surgical, conservative approach is recommended for dogs experiencing IVDD back pain and leg weakness. With this type of approach, the success rate is between 40% and 80%. This approach involves strict crate rest for three to four weeks in a safe and confined location. Running and jumping are not allowed during this time.
A veterinarian may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication to reduce swelling. Additional medications help to manage the dog’s IVDD pain. In most cases, any sign of a dog’s back pain should be gone after a few days of medication and rest. However, the ruptured disc needs a full four weeks of complete rest and reduced activity to heal completely.
The veterinarian will reassess your dog’s progress after the first four weeks. During the assessment, the vet will determine that the spine has healed and that the dog can walk without pain. If the dog has recovered well, additional rehabilitation therapy for IVDD may be recommended, along with wearing back support. Surgery may be needed if the dog is still in pain after strict crate rest and the ruptured disc has not healed correctly.
Surgery for IVDD
IVDD surgery is often recommended for dogs dealing with paralysis or for pets dealing with persistent neck and back pain. The herniated disc will be removed during surgery while the dog is under general anesthesia. The surgeon can significantly reduce the spinal cord pressure by removing the ruptured material to relieve canine back pain and mobility.
IVDD Preventative Measures
Simple changes can be made to prevent the occurrence of IVDD in high-risk dogs. A back support system helps maintain proper alignment and prevents dogs from twisting their bodies. Limiting the range of motion can also help dogs heal during IVDD recovery. Maintaining a healthy diet and healthy weight can greatly reduce the risk of back injury. Most importantly, avoid jumping. Dogs with a bad back should never jump off furniture. Although exercise is wonderful in moderation, avoid playing frisbee or fetch, where a dog can twist or jump. You can lower the risk of IVDD by making simple lifestyle changes and providing pets with the right type of support.
Even after treatment, there is a 40% chance of a dog having a recurrence of IVDD, regardless of the treatment method you select. In rare cases, a dog’s paralysis is irreversible. However, paralyzed dogs can live a long and active life with the aid and support of a dog wheelchair. Dogs left paralyzed after a spinal condition can live a normal life on wheels, enjoying the same kind of activity they enjoyed before IVDD. Dog wheelchairs allow pets to run, play, and continue to lead an active lifestyle.