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 4 dachshunds. Although IVDD most commonly occurs short dog breeds with long backs, any dog breed can get IVDD.
What is IVDD?
IVDD is the most common neurological condition impacting dogs. Just like humans, a dogs spine is made up of a series of bones called vertebra running from skull to tail. Inside each vertebrae is hole where the nerves of the spinal column lay which control a dog’s movement. Just below the spinal cord in each vertebrae 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 determines where and how a dog is impacted. IVDD is the leading cause of paralysis in dogs and can occur anywhere along the spine.
Along with mobility problems, dogs with IVDD can experience:
- 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
Understanding the Severity and Stages of IVDD in Dogs
A spinal disc can rupture suddenly or slowly over time. A intervertebral disc that degenerates and ruptures over the course of 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 their feet.
IVDD Stage 1
In stage 1 IVDD is the least severe form of intervertebral disc disease. At this stage a dog will show signs of neck or back pain, 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. Until fully healed its normal for dogs to hold their head lower and will be reluctant to turn their head.
IVDD Stage 2
A dog in stage 2 IVDD can still walk, but will struggle with their paw placement. Proprioception deficits such as paw knuckling is 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 they are moved. 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 on their own. When the dog is standing one or more paws may be knuckling or dragging while walking. 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 cases the dog is paralyzed and unable to walk, but maintains a deep pain sensation. A dog’s pain sensation is tested by judging their response to a pinch of the toes. A stage 4 dog may not be able to control their 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 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, the dog will not be able to walk. A conservative approach is not the best option for dogs at this severe stage. Stage 5 IVDD surgery is about a 50% success rate. At this point, surgery is an emergency and should be done within the first 24 hours of onset.
Treating Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs
The stage and severity of a dog’s IVDD determines the recommended treatment plan. The sooner your dog receives veterinary help the better chances there are for full recovery. There are two common treatment options available for intervertebral disc disease: conservative medical management and surgery. More advanced stages of IVDD preferring a surgical option with the more mild IVDD stages leaning towards conservative options.
Conservative Treatment Options for IVDD
A non-surgical, conservative approach is typically recommended for dogs who are experiencing IVDD back pain along with leg weakness. With this type of approach, the success rate is between 40% to 80%, This type of 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 period.
Anti-inflammatory medication will be prescribed 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.
After the first four weeks, the dog will be reassessed by a vet. During the assessment the vet will determine that the spine has healed and that the dog is able to walk without pain. If the dog has recovered well, additional rehabilitation therapy for IVDD may be recommended along with wearing back support. If the dog is still in pain after strict crate rest and the ruptured disc has not healed properly surgery may be needed.
Surgery for IVDD
IVDD surgery is often the recommended option for dogs dealing with paralysis or in pets dealing with persistent neck and back pain. During surgery the herniated disc will be removed while the dog is under general anesthesia. By removing the ruptured material the surgeon can greatly reduce the spinal cord pressure in the hopes of relieving canine back pain and mobility.
IVDD Preventative Measures
Simple changes can be made to prevent an occurrence of IVDD in high risk dogs. A back support system helps to maintain proper alignment and can prevent dogs from twisting their body. 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. 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.