What Is IVDD in Dogs?
Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) in dogs is a neurological condition that involves the spinal cord, the vertebrae, or back bones (the small, round bones that make up the spinal column or spine), and the disc material between each vertebra.
The vertebrae protect the spinal cord and the nerves that transmit impulses to and from the brain and the rest of the body. The spine also supports the weight and movement of the body. When something is wrong with the spine, it causes pain or even immobility. In between each vertebra is a soft, jelly-like disc surrounded by thick fibrous tissue. This intervertebral material serves as a cushion to absorb shock and help provide flexibility to the body as it moves.
IVDD in dogs is a condition that occurs when the cushioning discs between the bones of the spinal column either bulge or burst into the space containing the spinal cord. When this disc material pushes on the spinal cord, it can cause pain, nerve damage, and even paralysis. This condition is also known as a slipped disc, herniated disc, or bulging disc.
Certain dog breeds that have a long back and short legs, including Dachshund, Basset Hound, Shih Tzu, French Bulldog, Lhasa Apso, Pekingese, and Beagle, are predisposed to IVDD. The disease has also been known to occur in large-breed dogs, such as German Shepherds, because with age disc degeneration occurs.
Types of IVDD in Dogs
Hansen Type I and Hansen Type II are the two main types of disease that affect the intervertebral disc, each causing a disc to press painfully against the spinal cord:
Hansen Type I occurs when the soft, jelly-like center of the disc becomes hardened. With one wrong jump or sudden impact, this rock-like disc shoots out of its thick shell and pushes upward into the spinal cord and its surrounding nerves. This movement of the disc material (called a herniation) causes compression and bruising of the spinal cord. This is a very sudden, sharp pain with varying degrees of reduced nerve function.
Type I disc disease is most common in Dachshunds and other similar breeds with the same body structure.
Hansen Type II involves a much slower degenerative process, where the disc material impinges on the spinal cord and spinal nerves over time from a matter of months to years. The thick fibers around the soft disc material will slowly collapse over time and push upward. This causes more long-term pain and spinal cord compression.
Type II disc disease is common in German Shepherds and other large breed dogs.
Symptoms of IVDD in Dogs
Clinical signs of IVDD depend on the type of disc herniation and location in the spinal column. Starting at the neck and moving toward the tail are five regions of the spine—the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, and caudal vertebrae. The most common sites of disc herniation in dogs are at the end of the thoracic vertebrae (T11-T12) and the beginning of the lumbar vertebrae (L2-L3). These herniations are painful impact a dog’s ability to move. Cervical (neck) herniations are less common, but if they do occur it’s almost always in Dachshunds, Beagles, or Poodles and they tend to create more pain but less loss of function.
Symptoms of IVDD include:
Limping or lameness, unsteady walking
Dragging back legs
Stumbling over back feet
Hunched back or neck with tense muscles
Unwillingness to jump
Anxious behavior (e.g., shivering, panting)
Decreased activity level
Loss of bladder and/or bowel control (urinary and/or fecal incontinence)
Difficulty posturing to urinate/defecate
Paralysis (i.e., complete loss of function in front or hind limbs)
Causes of IVDD in Dogs
IVDD is the result of a herniated disc and compression of the spinal cord. In chondrodystrophic dog breeds (those with a hereditary cartilage development abnormality), that include Dachshunds, Corgis, and Bassett Hounds, IVDD is commonly caused by an acute or sudden rupture of the disc material. While wear and tear damages the disc over time, the rupture generally occurs suddenly as the result of a forceful impact (e.g., jumping, landing).
In large-breed dogs, such as Shepherds, Labradors, and Doberman Pinschers, the discs become hardened over a longer period, eventually bulging or rupturing to cause spinal cord compression. This type happens gradually, and a specific forceful impact won’t be the cause of damage.
How Veterinarians Diagnose IVDD in Dogs
If you suspect your dog is having any back pain or difficulty getting around, have it examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible. With IVDD, the sooner you treat the problem the better the chance for a full recovery.
Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical and neurological examination including baseline blood and urine testing to assess your dog’s overall health. Based on the results of the examination, if IVDD is suspected your vet will likely recommend imaging tests to visualize the spine and surrounding tissues to determine the severity of the condition.
Plain radiographs (X-rays) are taken of the spine to look for areas of narrowing joint spaces in between the vertebrae, but X-rays do not show the spinal cord. An MRI can better identify the location of a spinal cord compression and material in the vertebral canal. MRI has become the technique of choice for the diagnosis of IVDD because it allows scanning of the whole spine so that the discs and spinal cord can be assessed in the same image. Depending on the severity of clinical signs and indications for surgery, other diagnostic tools including myelography, or computed tomography/CT scan) can further investigate the type of herniation and its location.
Treatment of IVDD in Dogs
Depending on the severity of the damage to your dog’s spinal cord, treatment can range from medical management to emergency surgery.
In mild cases of IVDD, treatment focuses on reducing pain, inflammation, and swelling. This is achieved using medications and strict confinement. Your dog should be in a crate or a small area where they cannot run, jump, play, or perform any exercise. The timeline of strict rest depends on the specific injury and rate of healing. Often, physical therapy is recommended to help speed recovery.
If the damage is severe and the dog has a degree of paralysis, surgical correction of the herniation is typically suggested. This is usually an emergency surgery to minimize any permanent neurologic damage. The goal of surgery is to evaluate the herniation and relieve the pressure on the spinal cord. This is done by removing a portion of the bony vertebra over the affected part of the spinal cord (called a laminectomy).
After surgery, the same activity restrictions apply, focusing on conservative management to allow the spinal cord to heal. Unfortunately, even with surgery, some dogs will not regain function and will have lasting neurological issues.
How Much Does IVDD Surgery for Dogs Cost?
IVDD surgery itself can cost between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on where you live and the individual veterinary office. This does not include pre-op and post-op treatment, consultations, lab work, medications, or other added potential costs that may be needed to treat the condition.
Recovery and Management of IVDD in Dogs
Prognosis varies significantly depending on the degree and the location of the injury. Most disc ruptures entail minimal neurological issues and the pup patient will have an excellent chance to return to walking. However, if the pet has lost the ability to sense pain in its legs before surgery is performed, it may never walk again.
The spinal cord recovers slowly, and extra care must be taken to prohibit running, jumping, going up or down stairs, playing with other dogs, and hopping on or off furniture. If your dog is diagnosed with a mild to moderate IVDD injury, treatment may include steroid and anti-inflammatory medications to help reduce pain and swelling, combined with strictly reduced activity for approximately four to six weeks. Recovery from IVDD surgery requires six to eight weeks of restricted activity.
It is not uncommon for a dog (mainly Dachshunds) to have additional herniations in other regions of the spine after surgery. Though it is difficult to prevent future disc herniations, the likelihood can be limited by avoiding activities such as jumping and explosive movements (e.g., frisbee, stairs). Dogs with back problems should be kept at a healthy weight to allow a quicker recovery from surgery and to avoid future strain on the back.
Surgery outcomes are most successful in dogs that have not lost their ability to walk. If your dog’s surgery is not successful in returning them to normal mobility, a dog wheelchair can help your pup enjoy a happy and active life while living with IVDD.
Featured Image: iStock.com/SeventyFour
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