What is it exactly?
The discs, located between your dog’s vertebrae, act as cushions. They provide support and flexibility to the spine.
IVDD in dogs occurs when these discs become herniated or they deteriorate, leading to pain, neurological symptoms, and potential loss of mobility.
Why does it happen & Can my dog develop IVDD?
The first question that is usually asked- Is intervertebral disc disease in dogs is genetic? And the answer to that is yes.
Chondrodystrophic dog breeds or breeds that have short legs, and long spines such as Dachshunds, Basset Hounds, Shih Tzus and Bulldogs like the French Bulldog, are genetically predisposed to IVDD due to their unique body structures and disc composition.
IVDD in dogs can happen at any age, but being older does have a significant impact on the development of IVDD.
As dogs age, their spinal health deteriorates. Over time the discs in your dog’s vertebrae lose their elasticity and water content making them less resilient and more prone to damage leading to compression of the spine.
In some cases, dogs develop disc calcification as they get older. This is when the inner core of the disc hardens due to mineral deposits. The calcification increases the chance of disc herniation.
While these are the two most popular age-related causes, the general accumulation of wear and tear paired with slower healing increases the likelihood of IVDD.
Excessive body weight puts additional stress on the spinal discs and other joints, increasing the rate of degeneration and chances of herniation. Excessive fat tissue also causes a low-grade systemic inflammation that can slow down the healing rate leading to the accumulation of trauma.
Acute trauma or accidents, such as falls or car accidents, can cause immediate disc herniation or damage, leading to IVDD.
Types of IVDD in Dogs:
Hansen Type I:
This type is characterized by sudden and acute disc herniation and is typically seen in chondrodystrophic breeds such as Dachshunds, Beagles, and Corgis. It occurs when the inner nucleus pulposus of the disc extrudes into the spinal canal, causing compression and injury to the spinal cord.
Hansen Type I IVDD often manifests as a sudden onset of back pain, reluctance to move, weakness, and even paralysis. It is considered a medical emergency and requires immediate veterinary attention.
Hansen Type II:
This type is more common in non-chondrodystrophic breeds or larger breeds, such as Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds. Unlike Type I, Type II IVDD involves degenerative changes in the disc over time, leading to bulging or protrusion of the disc material.
It is usually a gradual process and may result in chronic back pain, stiffness, and neurological deficits. The symptoms can vary in severity depending on the degree of disc degeneration and compression of the spinal cord or nerve roots.
How do I know if my dog has IVDD?
The signs of your dogs IVDD, can vary depending on the severity and location of the affected discs. But here are a few telltale signs you can look out for to check if your dog has IVDD.
Most dogs with IVDD may exhibit signs of pain such as reluctance to move, hunching of the back, or yelping or whimpering when touched or lifted.
They may have difficulty or hesitation when getting up, jumping, or going up or down stairs. This stiffness can be commonly seen in your dog’s neck and in the hind legs.
They may walk with a wobbly gait, may drag their hind limbs, or may prefer one limb over the other.
Loss of Coordination:
They may have trouble maintaining balance and may stumble, or show incoordination in their movements. In severe cases, paralysis in one or more legs, loss of bowel and bladder control may happen.
These symptoms overlap with many other degenerative joint health issues dogs face. If you do spot any of the above symptoms, it is best to take your pet to the Vet to accurately diagnose the cause as an accurate diagnosis is key to effectively managing degenerative diseases.
Your Vet will perform a thorough physical examination to evaluate the dog’s posture, gait, and response to touch. They may even perform assessments, such as:
By gathering information about your dog’s symptoms, the onset, and progression will help in understanding the clinical picture and rule out other potential causes of similar symptoms.
X-rays provide initial information, but they are often followed by more advanced imaging techniques such as a Myelogram (contrast dye study) or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to obtain detailed images of the spinal cord and intervertebral discs. The tests help visualize disc herniation, degenerative changes, and the extent of spinal cord compression.
Your veterinarian may also perform a neurological examination to assess your dog’s ability, reflexes, muscle strength, sensation, and your dog’s response to stimuli. This evaluation helps determine the location and severity of spinal cord or nerve root involvement.
What to do if you have a dog with IVDD?
The conventional treatment options are divided into three main categories- conservative, medical and surgical and depend on the severity of the condition and the specific clinical signs.
The goal of treatment is to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, and manage neurological deficits and in most cases your Vet would build a multimodal treatment plan.
A conservative treatment and physical therapy approach is exclusively considered in cases of mild disc herniation and when dealing with the early stages of IVDD. It is always used along with other medical and surgical options as it boosts the efficacy of the other treatments. Here are a few your Vet would suggest:
Rest and Confinement:
Dogs with mild IVDD may benefit from strict rest and limited physical activity to allow the body to heal naturally and reduce the risk of further disc herniation. Strict crate rest and restrictions on high-impact movement are recommended.
Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation:
Passive Range of Motion (PROM):
Passive range of motion exercises are generally suggested. They involve gently moving your dog’s limbs and joints through their natural range of motion without any active participation from the dog. PROM helps maintain joint flexibility, prevent muscle contractures, and improve circulation.
Active Range of Motion (AROM):
Active range of motion exercises are those that encourage your dog to move their limbs independently. AROM exercises help improve muscle strength, and joint stability while preventing muscle atrophy and boosting your dog’s mobility.
Hydrotherapy is one of the most effective therapies. when dealing with an IVDD dog. They refer to exercises performed in a controlled pool or underwater treadmill. The water makes dogs float or more buoyant which reduces the weight-bearing stress on the joints, making it easier for them to exercise and build strength. The water also provides gentle resistance, which helps improve muscle tone and endurance.
Heat and Cold Therapy:
Your veterinary rehabilitation specialist may use this combination to manage pain and promote healing as heat therapy helps relax muscles and alleviate pain, while cold therapy helps reduce inflammation and swelling.
Low-Level Laser Therapy(LLLT):
Cold laser therapy or low-level laser therapy works on a cellular level through a process called photobiomodulation. A low-intensity laser light is applied to the affected area to increase the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which supports cellular repair and regeneration.
There are many forms of electrotherapy and the one that is most employed in the case of IVDD, especially for acute IVDD is Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS). TENS works by delivering a low-level electrical current through electrodes placed on the skin to block pain signals from reaching the brain, reducing pain perception and providing relief.
Here are a few additional things you can do to make things easier:
Home Exercise Program: You can ask your veterinary rehabilitation specialist to give you a home exercise program and to teach you exercises and techniques that you can do at home to support your dog’s progress and maintain their mobility.
Orthopaedic Beds: Orthopaedic beds are designed to provide additional support. The thick memory foam conforms to your dog’s body and helps in alleviating pressure on the dog’s spine and joints. If you are looking to get your dog an orthopaedic bed, get one with a low profile with a no-slip bottom to make it easier for them to get on and off. A comfy bed also makes crate rest more comfortable.
Weight Management: If you have an overweight dog, develop a plan with your vet to bring their weight back down to a healthy one. Excess weight adds more pressure on the joints and can accelerate degeneration.
Environmental Enrichment: The changes in lifestyle, pain and restrictions on movement can make your dog anxious. Adding a calming supplement, puzzles and soft play activities(if your dog has a very mild case of IVDD) can greatly boost their brain health and smoothen the course of your dog’s recovery.
Your Vet might prescribe medications for the following reasons:
Pain Management & Anti-Inflammatory Effects:
If your dog suffers from IVDD, you would know that this condition can cause extreme pain. Pain medication, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids and other analgesics, are prescribed to alleviate pain and improve the dog’s comfort.
Nerve Pain Relief & Muscle Relaxation:
Some dogs with IVDD experience neuropathic pain and muscle spasms and they can further exacerbate pain. Medications like gabapentin may be used to target nerve pain, relieve muscle tension and promote relaxation.
Since IVDD primarily affects the spinal discs and the surrounding tissues rather than the joints, the primary focus of treatment is not usually supplementation, but they have beneficial effects on overall joint health. Joint supplements typically contain ingredients such as glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega-3 fatty acids or fish oil, which are believed to support cartilage health and joint function.
Pre- and Post-Surgical Management:
In cases where surgical intervention is required for severe IVDD, medications are often used before and after the procedure to manage pain, inflammation, and prevent complications.
Your Vet might suggest surgery for severe cases especially when conservative treatments have not been successful or when there are severe neurological deficits. The main surgical procedures used for IVDD are hemilaminectomy and disc fenestration. The choice of surgery depends on the location, severity, and specific circumstances of the disc herniation.
Hemilaminectomy or Decompressive Surgery is the most common surgical procedure for IVDD. It involves removing a portion of the affected vertebra or disc to relieve pressure on the spinal cord or nerves. By decompressing the spinal cord or nerves, hemilaminectomy helps alleviate pain, improve neurological function, and prevent further damage.
Disc fenestration is a less invasive surgical option for certain types of disc herniation. It involves creating small openings in the outer layer of the affected disc to remove the herniated material and decompress the spinal cord and nerve roots. Dogs usually have a shorter recovery time with disc fenestration compared to hemilaminectomy.
In some cases, a damaged intervertebral disc can be replaced with an artificial disc to restore stability and function.
Prevention of IVDD in Dogs
While IVDD cannot always be completely prevented, there are certain measures you can take to help reduce the risk or the severity of the condition.
Your dog’s weight plays a critical role when it comes to developing joint issues. Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial for reducing stress on the spine and intervertebral discs. Obesity can increase the risk of IVDD and exacerbate its effects. Ensure your dog maintains a balanced diet and regular exercise to prevent excessive weight gain.
Regular exercise helps keep the muscles supporting the spine strong and promotes overall fitness. However, it’s important to avoid high-impact activities, excessive jumping, and rough play that may strain the back and potentially lead to disc injury. Consult your veterinarian to determine the appropriate exercise routine for your dog’s breed and individual needs.
Proper Lifting and Support:
When lifting or carrying your dog, especially small or susceptible breeds, provide proper support to their back and hind end. Avoid lifting them by their front legs or putting unnecessary strain on their spine.
Avoiding Excessive Stairs or Jumping:
Discourage or limit activities that involve excessive climbing up and down stairs or jumping from heights. These actions can put stress on the spinal column and increase the risk of disc herniation. Consider using ramps or stairs with gentle inclines to help your dog navigate elevated surfaces.
Certain breeds, particularly chondrodystrophic breeds like Dachshunds, Beagles, and Corgis, are more prone to IVDD. If you own one of these breeds, it’s important to be extra vigilant in preventive measures, weight management, and providing appropriate care.
Regular Veterinary Check-ups:
Routine veterinary examinations allow for early detection of any potential signs of IVDD or related issues. Regular check-ups help monitor your dog’s overall health, including their back and neurological status.
Providing a Supportive Environment:
Provide your dog with a comfortable and supportive environment, including a well-padded bed or mat to minimize pressure on the spine. Ensure they have easy access to food, water, and elimination areas to avoid excessive movement or strain.
Life expectancy of dogs with Intervertebral Disc Disease:
The life expectancy of dogs with intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) can vary widely depending on several factors, including the severity of the condition, the age of the dog, the presence of neurological deficits, the type of treatment received, and the dog’s overall health.
For dogs with mild IVDD and no significant neurological deficits, especially if treated promptly and effectively, the life expectancy can be normal, and they can lead a full and healthy life. With conservative management, such as rest, medication, and physical therapy, many dogs can recover from mild IVDD episodes and resume normal activities.
In more severe cases of IVDD, especially when neurological deficits are present and require surgical intervention, the life expectancy can still be good. Surgery aims to relieve pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots, and with proper post-operative care and rehabilitation, many dogs can regain function and enjoy a good quality of life.
However, it’s important to note that IVDD can be a progressive condition, and dogs who have experienced one episode of IVDD may be more prone to future episodes. Recurrence of IVDD is more likely in certain breeds with a genetic predisposition or other risk factors.
In some cases, IVDD can lead to permanent neurological damage or complications, which may impact the dog’s mobility and overall quality of life. In these situations, the life expectancy may be affected.
In these cases, complete to partial paralysis of the hind legs common. It can be hard for your pup to move about and do basic things like poop. Assistive devices like wheelchairs can significantly improve the quality of life and give your dog their freedom to move about and expose the world around them.
Severe cases, or cases where IVDD surgery hasn’t had a huge impact, normal tasks like eating, walks, and excreting can become challenging both for you dog and you. You can have your veterinary rehab facility teach you how to hold your dog, carry them from place to place and help them carry out their bodily functions without causing any harm to your dog’s spine.
To ensure the best possible outcome and life expectancy for dogs with IVDD, early detection, prompt veterinary care, appropriate treatment is required. Regular veterinary check-ups and proactive measures to manage your dog’s health and lifestyle can contribute to a longer and healthier life for dogs with IVDD.
And don’t skimp on those physical therapy exercises!