IVDD stands for intervertebral disc disease. The intervertebral disc is a spongy, doughnut-shaped pad that lies just underneath the spinal cord in dogs. Each disc forms a bridge between neighbouring vertebrae providing flexibility and strength to the spinal cord. The cushioning discs essentially function as shock absorbers.
According to PetMD, IVDD in dogs is “a condition where the cushioning discs between the vertebrae (bones) of the spinal column either bulge or burst into the spinal cord space”. Commonly called a herniated or slipped disc, the condition causes the discs to put pressure on the nerves that run through the spinal cord, causing incoordination, pain, nerve damage and worse, paralysis.
Causes of IVDD
IVDD in dogs results when the cushioning discs between the vertebrae of the spinal column begin to harden to the point that they no longer adequately cushion the spine. The hardening causes the discs to bulge and compress the spinal cord, which can damage nerve impulses impairing bladder and bowel control.
Any dog can experience IVDD, but certain dog breeds are most susceptible to getting IVDD due to a cartilage formation disorder called chondrodystrophy. The initial onset occurs when the dog is between 3 and 6 years old. These breeds include:
- Basset Hounds
- Shih Tzus
- Cocker Spaniels
Some dog breeds without chondrodystrophy that are affected by IVDD include German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers and Doberman Pinschers. Senior dog and dogs that are obese and overweight are also at risk.
Even though IVDD in dogs is a gradual degenerative disease, it can lie dormant for years. It might not be apparent until there is a trigger. A dog can appear to be healthy one day and an unexpected jump or fall can rupture or damage a disc already weakened by IVDD. The spinal cord cannot fun
Veterinarians have identified three different types of IVDD:
- Type 1 is characterised by a slipped disc. This type is common among small dog breeds and large breed dogs and occurs in their youth to middle age.
- Type 2 results from the chronic bulging of the outer part of the disc on the spinal cord. This type is slowly progressive and common in middle age to senior large breed dogs.
- Type 3 is also known as “acute non-compressive” disc disease. Sudden onset of the disease begins with trauma or heavy exercise.
When you take your pup to the veterinarian with these symptoms, physical examination and non-invasive testing will determine if the dog has IVDD. He will undergo a complete neurological examination with hands-on palpations and manual testing to identify where the injury is located.
Standard X-rays alone are not enough because they don’t show the joints between the discs or the spinal cord running inside them. A definitive diagnosis of IVDD in dogs requires the use of myelography, spinal radiographs, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Myelography are x-rays taken after a dye is injected around the spinal cord. Spinal radiographs are digital images of the internal composition of the dog’s body.
Symptoms of IVDD in dogs
Dog parents are sensitive to their dog’s normal behaviour. We know when their movements and habits are not regular. Symptoms of IVDD in dogs may be gradual, intermittent or sudden and range from relatively mild to very serious. Some dogs may experience mild pain; others suffer paralysis while others fall somewhere in between.
Common symptoms include:
- Stiffness on neck, legs or back
- Wobbling or dragging of one or both rear legs
- Dragging of paws when walking
- Obvious pain or weakness
- Stooped head when standing
- Reduced physical activity
- Reluctance to jump or stand
- Whimpering or sensitivity to touch or movement
- Muscle/back spasms
- Reduced appetite
- Arched or hunched back or neck
- Impaired walking
IVDD in dogs may go through the following stages though there is no linear progression. A dog may show symptoms of a more progressive stage from the beginning or quickly progress from Stage 1 to Stage 5.
Stage 1 – mild pain that usually self-corrects in a few days
Stage 2 – moderate to severe neck or back pain
Stage 3 – partial paralysis, trouble walking and/or uncoordinated motion
Stage 4 – paralysis but able to feel
Stage 5 – paralysis with loss of feeling
Treatment & Management
Early intervention is essential to minimise the possibility of permanent nerve damage. The severity of the damage to the spinal cord will determine the range of treatment. Dogs can recover from IVDD.
Mild to moderate injuries are treated with conservative treatment like steroids and anti-inflammatory medication to reduce swelling and pain. Dogs with spasms of the back muscle require heat and massage techniques along with their medication.
Rest is necessary for a minimum of four weeks. Strict rest depends on the injury and healing rate. Crate rest is recommended to prevent further damage. After a period of rest and recovery, the dog may gradually return to regular activity.
Severe cases might require surgery after diagnosis to open up space around the spine. Veterinarians do this to relieve pressure on the spinal cord by removing a portion of the bony vertebrae over the spinal cord. If the dog’s disease is so advanced that he has lost the ability to walk, surgery may not be an option.
Recovery can be a long journey. After surgery, physical rehabilitation is recommended to strengthen the dog’s muscles. If surgery isn’t successful, a dog wheelchair may be recommended for mobility. Proper nursing care can improve the dog’s quality of life and improve his long term prognosis.
Prevention is always better than any cure
It is possible to minimise the risk of IVDD in dogs. Manage your dog’s food intake and maintain a healthy lean weight to reduce stress on the neck, joints and back. Consider using a back brace to support your dog’s back and spine and prevent further injuries. Avoid having your dog sit up on his bottom in a begging position.
Use a dog harness instead of a neck leash when walking your dog to keep stress off the neck. Minimise jumping on and off high places like onto the couch or bed. Use appropriate dog steps or ramps to help your dog get onto furniture or into the car. Minimise running activities, especially at fast paces. Avoid tug games that might cause stress on the spine and neck.
With increased knowledge of the risks to your dog, and with some easily implemented systems to prevent injury, IVDD can be held at bay in even the most susceptible of dogs.
In the case of a diagnosis, please rest assured that IVDD can most definitely be managed and your dog’s quality of life and enjoyment can still continue. We can introduce some of the modifications mentioned above into our daily routines, and with an increased awareness of their unique needs, the fun can still continue for many years to come.