Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs: Symptoms, Causes & Surgery

Intervertebral disc disease is a painful, age-related degenerative condition seen in some dog breeds more than others. Our Waxhaw vets define the disease and explain symptoms, causes and treatment.


What is intervertebral disc disease in dogs?

Intervertebral disk disease (IVDD) is a common spinal disease found in dogs (it occasionally appears in cats). Typically, spinal surgery would be performed for dogs with intervertebral disk disease.

In dogs, the intervertebral discs are made up of cartilage that’s surrounded by a ring of fibrous tissue, which acts as a cushion between vertebrae surrounding the spinal cord. These discs are present between every set of vertebrae but the first two.

Intervertebral disc disease in dogs, Providence Animal Hospital, Waxhaw Vets

Healthy discs absorb shock, provide flexibility to the spine and allow your pooch’s body to move as it should (flexing, twisting and extending) while running and jumping. There are two parts to each disc: an outer fibrous annulus fibrosus and a gelatinous center known as nucleus pulposus.

Types of Intervertebral Disc Disease

There are three types of IVDD:

Type 1

The middle part of the disc (nucleus pulposus) ruptures due to tears in the outer part of the disc (annulus fibrosis). This is also referred to as a slipped disc. This type of disc disease may happen anywhere along the spine, and you may notice a sudden inability to walk.

The nucleus pulposus loses normal water content and calcification can occur. Most disc herniations happen in the middle part of the back and clinical symptoms can vary from pain to paralysis as intolerable strain is put on the disc and the spinal cord becomes compressed.

Type 1 is most commonly found in small-breed dogs two years and older, such as the beagle, basset hound, miniature or toy poodle, shih tzu, dachshund and others, although larger breeds such as the Rottweiler and Labrador Retriever can also be impacted.

This type is a painful condition and in severe cases, is an emergency case that your dog should see a vet for immediately.

Type 2

This condition typically progresses more slowly and is caused by a chronic bulging of the disc’s outer portion (the annulus) on the spinal cord, which can atrophy as a result of chronic compression. Occasionally, the annulus may tear and fragment, with the fragmented piece compressing the spinal cord. With this type, signs can develop progressively but quietly.

Surprisingly, it may or may not be painful and appears most often in middle-aged to older (5 to 12 years) medium and large-breed dogs. Symptoms are similar to those in Type 1.

Type 3

With this type, dogs will experience a sudden onset of the disease, usually as a result of trauma or heavy exercise that causes a sudden tear to occur in the annulus. The spinal cord injury does not result in chronic compression of the spinal cord. Patients may recover by attending physiotherapy and rehabilitation, without surgery.

This is also a painful condition and you may notice your pooch has difficulty walking and controlling his hind limbs. Complete paralysis can also happen. Severe cases may be fatal as the spinal cord softens and dies, affecting the nerves your dog uses to breathe. This can lead to respiratory arrest.

What are symptoms of intervertebral disc disease?

Symptoms will vary depending on what type of IVDD your dog has. Signs can include:

  • Holding the neck low
  • Unable to fully lifted the head
  • Neck or back pain
  • Weak, uncoordinated movement within four limbs or hind limbs
  • Limping on one or both front limbs
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Panting or shivering
  • Paralysis in four limbs or difficulty breathing (severe cases that are surgical emergencies)
  • Hunched back or stiff appearance
  • Paralysis

The most severe cases are particularly difficult for owners to watch as they can involve lost bladder function, inability to feel painful sensations and/or paralysis.

What causes intervertebral disc disease? Is it treatable or curable?

IVDD is an age-related, degenerative condition. Dogs with short and curved limbs (Lucas Terriers, Shih Tzus, Dachshunds and others) are more likely to experience early degenerative changes, which can result in calcification. The degeneration can ultimately lead to herniation of the disc and compression of the spinal cord.

Surgery for Dogs with IVDD

Cost of treatment depends on the procedure used, your pet’s specific condition and a number of other factors.

Your vet will use advanced diagnostic imaging to diagnose the condition. Mild cases may be treated conservatively by restricting movement (confining the dog to a cage) and pain relief, though scenarios that include paralysis will likely require surgery. Your dog may be able to walk again pain-free.

If response to pain is absent, this is an emergency and the prognosis for improvement is unfortunately poor. Depending on the complexity of the surgical procedure, the surgery may take 1 to 3 hours. Your dog will then need to rest and be monitored and assessed as he recovers. Physiotherapy will also be essential to his progress.

Long-term, dogs who do not regain the ability to walk may use a custom-built mobility cart, but have limited bladder control. His bladder may need to be emptied manually (owners can learn how to do this as they prepare to take their dog home.

Following successful spinal surgeries, dogs do not generally experience problems with the same disc, however you may see problems with remaining discs that degenerate. If possible, other discs are fenestrated during the procedure to decrease the risk of recurring IVDD.

Do you suspect your dog is suffering from Intervertebral Disc Disease? Our veterinarians at Providence South Animal Hospital in Waxhaw have experience in identifying many conditions and illnesses in dogs. Book an appointment today.

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