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Your dog's nutrition is important for a healthy & happy life. petMD experts help you to know what to feed your dog, how much food to feed, and the differences in dog foods, so your dog gets optimum nutrition.
Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

Feeding Dogs with Intervertebral Disc Disease

April 10, 2015 / (1) comments

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is the scourge of our “low rider” canine friends, especially Dachshunds. Those long backs and short legs are caused by chondrodystrophy (atypical cartilage development), a condition that also affects the discs of cartilage that lie between the spine’s vertebrae. Stress causes these abnormal discs to bulge or rupture, which puts pressure on the spinal cord, resulting in pain, weakness, and/or paralysis.


The best way to treat IVDD depends on how severely affected a dog is. Mild to moderate cases (e.g., those with pain and weakness only) will often recover with pain relievers and cage rest followed by a slow return to normal activity.


On the other hand, when a dog’s neurologic function is severely compromised, surgery to relieve pressure on the damaged spinal cord is often necessary. Some dogs fully recover after surgery while others may still have difficulty walking or even remain paralyzed. Unfortunately, chondrodystrophic dogs often have more than one episode of IVDD throughout their lives.


IVDD is a heartbreaking condition. The front end of a severely affected dog is essentially normal, but behind the site of the injury, the dog may not be able to feel, move, or urinate and defecate on its own. While there is nothing an owner can do to treat the underlying chondrodystrophy that leads to IVDD, a couple of recent studies show that paying close attention to what and how much a dog eats goes a long way towards reducing the frequency and severity of these dogs’ back problems.


A paper looking primarily at the effect of body conformation on the likelihood that a dog would develop symptoms associated with IVDD also found a higher risk in overweight dogs, probably because extra body weight increases the stress on intervertebral discs. The authors concluded that dogs at risk for IVDD should be maintained at a “healthy, lean” body condition score of 4-5 out of 9. Take a look at this chart to see what a BCS of 4 or 5 out of 9 looks like.


Another study revealed that a lower body condition score was associated with faster recovery after back surgery (hemilaminectomy). Recovery was defined as the ability to walk without assistance. The dogs included in the project were “7.62 times more likely to have recovered at the initial 3 to 4 week follow-up if they had a BCS of six or less.” The authors concluded that “as weight increased, the time to recovery post hemilaminectomy surgery, also increased.”


I recommend that Dachshunds and other chondrodystrophic dogs (e.g., Beagles, Pekingese, Corgis, and Shih-tsus) eat a diet that is moderate in fat and carbohydrates and relatively high in protein. These characteristics help promote muscle mass while not putting dogs at undue risk for obesity.


Of course, the amount a dog eats also needs to be closely monitored and adjusted to reach or maintain a body condition score of 4-5 out of 9. Nutritional supplements that can help maintain cartilage health (e.g., glucosamine, chondroitin, green-lipped mussels) are also worth considering.


Dr. Jennifer Coates





How long and low can you go? Effect of conformation on the risk of thoracolumbar intervertebral disc extrusion in domestic dogs. Packer RM, Hendricks A, Volk HA, et al. PLoS ONE 8:e69650, 2013.


Does body condition score increase recovery time in dogs treated with hemilaminectomy for acute onset disc rupture? Williams CC, Barone G. JVIM. 26:690-822, 2012.



Image: WilleeCole Photography / Shutterstock





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Intervertebral Disc Disease and its aftermath: Sophie Sue's success story



Comments  1

Leave Comment
  • Weight
    04/10/2015 04:41pm

    Being overweight is the first thing that crossed my mind in the first two paragraphs.

    I'm curious if the "length" of dogs like this is something that has been bred into them. If so, wouldn't it make sense for breeders to go for the shorter model?




Photo of Jennifer

... graduated with honors from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. In the years since, she has practiced veterinary medicine in Virginia, Wyoming, and Colorado. She is the author of several books about veterinary medicine and animal care, including the Dictionary of Veterinary Terms, Vet-Speak Deciphered for the Non-Veterinarian .

Jennifer also writes short stories that focus on the strength and importance of the human-animal bond and freelance articles relating to a variety of animal care and veterinary topics. Dr. Coates lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband, daughter, and pets.