Feeding Dogs with Intervertebral Disc Disease

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Published: April 10, 2015
Feeding Dogs with Intervertebral Disc Disease

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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