Intervertebral Disc Disease in dogs (also known as IVDD) can happen at any age, but it’s most often seen in the ‘long-bodied’ breeds.
When it appears in older dogs who haven’t previously had any back problems it’s often the result of the normal wear-and-tear on the vertebrae/spine.
Chondrodystrophic breeds (those with long bodies) include Dachshunds (the breed with the highest incidence of IVDD), as well as Basset Hounds, Corgis, Lhasa Apsos, Pugs, Boston Terriers, Pekingese and more.
Basically any purebred dog (or mixed breed) who’s bloodlines are from breeds whose physical characteristics show long bodies and short, often crooked legs (front feet turn outwards) is at risk.
It can be mild, moderate or serious, and left untreated can cause significant problems including permanent paralysis.
IVDD can also affect younger dogs, and when this happens it might be as a result of a genetic weakness or injury.
This page covers the symptoms and treatment options for IVDD, as well as tips on what you can do to try to prevent or minimize problems in the beginning.
My daughter’s Dachshund, Knox, is living with IVDD, so we have personal experience of this condition and I hope this page will help you to help your dog.
What Is Intervertebral Disc Disease?
Your dog’s spinal column is a series of bony vertebrae separated by intervertebral discs which are like cushions between them.
These discs are like small cushions, soft and pliable, with a tough, flexible outer layer and filled with a type of jelly-like fluid.
In older dogs wear and tear on the spine can cause the discs to degenerate. The outer layer thins and hardens, and the gelatinous liquid inside can become dry, hard and brittle.
This either puts pressure on the spinal cord, or causes cracks in the outer layer which eventually become holes.
If either of these things happen the vertebrae are no longer ‘cushioned’ and whatever was inside the disc is now pushed out and it compresses the spinal cord and causes pain and nerve damage (see Symptoms below).
This problem is most likely going to show up in dogs who are five years of age or older.
Studies show that the most common time for intervertebral disc disease to appear in older dogs is between 8 and 10 years of age. It’s known as Hansen Type II IVDD.
Type II IVDD tends to come on gradually over time and is more of a chronic condition.
Most older dogs, of all breeds, suffer from some degree of deterioration or degeneration of bones and joints (Arthritis is also part of this common problem).
But in senior dogs who aren’t ‘at risk’ breeds (and even those who are but who don’t have the genetic factor and who haven’t injured themselves), this degenerative process doesn’t necessarily lead to IVDD.
When IVDD shows up in younger dogs it’s most likely due to it being a hereditary problem.
The tendency to suffer from IVDD has literally been passed down from parent to puppy, and dogs as young as 1 year old can show symptoms. This is Hansen Type I IVDD.
Type I IVDD is frequently ‘acute’ with an ‘episode’ (appearance of symptoms) coming on suddenly, and often without any early warning symptoms.
In younger dogs IVDD can also be caused by environmental factors and activity.
The longer the spinal column, the more risk there is of damage from stress-related injuries.
Twisting in the air, jumping up onto (and off of) furniture or into and out of cars, running on hard surfaces such as concrete or playing ‘rough’ with other dogs can all lead to damaged vertebrae.
Whatever causes the damage to your dog’s spinal discs, the potential results are the same…. pain, loss of mobility, possible nerve damage, even paralysis.
Symptoms of IVDD In Dogs
Earliest symptoms of intervertebral disc disease in dogs can be very mild, and easily confused with other conditions or overlooked.
With intervertebral disc disease, a quick diagnosis is very important, if you want to minimize damage and speed up recovery time.
The pain and mobility problems associated with IVDD are caused by the bulging, and subsequent rupture, of the discs in your dog’s spinal column. This is also known as a ‘herniated disc’.
Early symptoms of IVDD (when the disc is most likely still bulging rather than ruptured) might include:
- Drop in activity level or lethargy
- Loss of appetite
- Reluctance to run, jump or climb stairs
- Yelp or cry out when picked up
- A ‘sad’ or ‘depressed’ attitude
If the disc ruptures, symptoms are going to be more obvious.
Sometimes there are no ‘early warning signs’ and the first indication that there’s a problem is pretty clear. This happened with Knox and it can be frightening and confusing.
Symptoms of a disc rupture or herniated disc, usually include one or (more likely) several of the following:
- Limping or lameness
- Clumsiness or wobbly gait
- Reluctance to walk, play, climb stairs, jump or even shake the head
- Weakness or even the loss of use of one or more legs (usually the rear legs)
- An odd ‘hunched’ posture or unusual position of the head
- Yelping, panting or shaking (all signs of pain and distress)
- Distended, rigid tummy (another sign of pain/distress)
- Rapid or shallow breathing
- Loss of bladder and/or bowel control
If your senior dog shows any of the symptoms above don’t assume it’s just arthritis, old age or something minor.
Although in older dogs Inter Vertebral Disc Disease can progress slowly, it’s important to get your dog examined as soon as you notice there’s a problem.
That way you can prevent things from becoming serious.
Your vet will most likely use a combination of hands-on examination, neurological tests, an MRI and possibly X-rays, to figure out exactly where the affected discs are – and how badly damaged they are.
Of course, many of these symptoms could point to a totally different health problem, including arthritis, torn ligament, broken bone, spinal tumor, neurological issue, even a bowel obstruction or bloat.
BUT don’t assume anything…. have Fido checked out by your vet right away.
Treating Inter Vertebral Disc Disease In Dogs
There’s a whole range of possible treatment options for any dog with IVDD.
Which one is best for your dog depends on how severe the damage is, how long the symptoms have been going on and your dog’s general health.
There’s one thing that’s very important to know, and it’s this… THE SOONER YOU GET YOUR DOG VETERINARY HELP THE BETTER HIS CHANCES OF RECOVERY.
This sounds obvious, and of course it’s true for all health problems, but with intervertebral disc disease it’s crucial.
It’s so important because IVDD is targeting a very important, and delicate, area of the body. The spinal cord.
If your dog is showing signs of nerve impairment… this includes leg weakness, lameness, wobbly gait, loss of bladder/bowel control or any degree of paralysis… you need to get him to your veterinarian IMMEDIATELY.
There’s a very short window of time in which to get treatment started that has the potential to reverse that damage.
The spine is the body’s major highway when it comes to nerve pathways and bulging, ruptured (or herniated) discs are putting pressure on the spinal column and basically cutting off the flow of traffic. Like a bottle neck at a junction.
This means that nerve signals can’t get through, or are weak/intermittent… and it’s THIS that causes the weakness, loss of bladder/bowel control and paralysis.
If the pressure isn’t relieved quickly it can cause permanent damage to that highway and the nerve signals may never be normal again.
When Knox had his first ‘episode’ of Intervertebral Disc Disease, our veterinarian told us that a dog who is showing signs of weakness or paralysis has an approximately 12 to 24 hour ‘window’ to get treatment if that nerve damage is to have a chance of being reversed.
When treating intervertebral disc disease, the aim is to relieve the pressure on your dog’s spinal cord and allow the blood-flow and nerve signals to pass through normally.
Depending on how severe the compression of the spinal cord is, your vet may recommend medications, or surgery, or a combination of both.
Each case is unique and only a veterinary professional can tell you what option is best for your dog.
Using Medications To Treat IVDD In Dogs
There are several different types, and brands, of medications that can be used to treat intervertebral disc disease in dogs, either separately or in combination…
- Anti-inflammatory medications (such as Rimadyl)
- Muscle relaxants (such as Diazepam)
This is often the first route your veterinarian will take if your dog’s symptoms are fairly mild and there’s no paralysis.
Your dog may need only one of these drugs, or two or three of them. How long he’ll need to take them depends on his individual symptoms and level of damage.
Some older dogs are already taking anti-inflammatories for other problems such as arthritis.
If Fido has liver problems then his options will be different.
Your vet will take all of this into account.
Surgical Treatment For IVDD In Dogs
If your dog has one, or several, ruptured discs and his symptoms include:
- loss of mobility or use of any of his legs
- loss of bladder/bowel control
- loss of feeling (ie. he can’t feel pain) in his legs or rear
… then surgery is most likely going to be the treatment that your veterinarian recommends.
This is an emergency situation and with the aim or relieving the pressure on the spinal cord, surgery is the quickest and most effective option.
Every minute counts at this point.
Exactly how your dog’s condition and is right after surgery depends a lot on how complete the compression of the spinal cord was, and the length of time it was compressed.
Some dogs almost ‘walk away’ from operating table (not literally, but that’s how our veterinarian described it to us… it means that they regain feeling and motion very quickly).
Others may need more time, physiotherapy or additional help.
You can expect to need to ‘nurse’ Fido for a few weeks. This will include helping him to get around and maybe to eat/drink as well.
You might even need to help him to empty his bladder or bowels.
Recovery & Aftercare For Dogs With IVDD
Some dogs make a full recovery from an acute episode of intervertebral disc disease, whether their treatment was medication or surgery.
Others don’t, and are left with some limits to their movement and abilities.
There are some very definite ‘rules’ about caring for a dog who is being treated with medication for IVDD, or who has recently had surgery to repair the discs.
Your own veterinarian will give you detailed instructions about how to take care of your dog over the next few weeks, and of course those are the instructions that you need to follow.
Your vet is the expert!
These guidelines are taken from the advice our veterinary surgeon gave us after Knox had surgery for an acute episode of Hansen Type I IVDD.
Limit Your Dog’s Mobility
The most important thing right now is to make sure your dog doesn’t re-injure himself, or make the existing condition worse. The best way to do this is to make sure he can’t move around very much.
That means crating him or confining him to a small area (using a playpen or something similar) so that he can’t move around and put stress on the damaged, or recently repaired, vertebrae.
His crate or playpen needs to be small, soft and comfortable. A pillow or crate pad is good. A supportive dog bed is perfect.
You don’t want pressure sores building up from lying on hard floor or the bottom of a crate.
If your dog is still partially paralyzed or has limited movement you’ll need to turn him frequently. If his bladder and/or bowels are working normally, carry him (carefully) outdoors to eliminate or to his indoor potty (whatever he normally uses).
Even if your pet can walk, it’s best to carry him carefully rather than have him walk around. Limited movement is the order of the day and he’s basically on ‘bed rest’.
Continue With Any Medications As Recommended
If your veterinarian tells you that your dog needs one, two or several different medicines to be taken regularly, it’s really, really important to make sure that Fido gets his meds.
When you’re giving 3+ different types of pills, all to be given at different intervals, it’s easy to get confused. This could have serious, even fatal consequences, so you need to be very careful.
We made a chart of the meds. that Knox was to take and wrote down the time each dose was given. That way we were sure that he got what he needed, and nothing more
Physical Therapy For Dogs With IVDD
There are additional, sometimes optional, therapies that can help your dog heal more quickly, ease his pain, and increase his chances of making a full recovery.
These include accupuncture, massage, physiotherapy, electrostimulation or electroacupuncture and laser treatments.
I’d strongly recommend asking your veterinarian about rehabilitation therapies for post-surgery (or once medication has eliminated the acute phase of the episode).
Studies seem to show that dogs who receive this type of additional help recover more quickly, and more fully, than dogs who don’t.
Slow and steady wins the race here, it’s a marathon not a sprint. Don’t be tempted to push your dog, simultaneously don’t panic and think he’ll never get better.
Just follow your veterinarian’s instructions, to the letter, and you’re giving Fido the best possible chance of getting back to normal.
Living With Intervertebral Disc Disease
Older dogs with intervertebral disc disease generally live with the problem for a long time, unless it presents as an acute ‘episode’ (severe symptoms including weakeness/pain/paralysis).
There are things you can do to help take the strain off his back and prevent things from getting worse quickly, and hopefully from becoming acute rather than chronic.
Here are the most important things you can do to help an older dog with chronic IVDD:
Keep His Weight Down
Carrying extra pounds puts extra strain on Fido’s skeletal framework (including his spine) as well as on ligaments and joints.
In small dogs (and many of the breeds most susceptible to IVDD are small breeds) it doesn’t take a lot of extra weight to cause problems.
Keep your dog lean by making sure he eats a healthy diet, doesn’t get fed scraps or sugary/high-fat treats, and gets regular and appropriate exercise.
Exercise & Play Sensibly
A dog who’s at risk of intervertebral disc disease shouldn’t jump up and down from furniture, or cars.
He shouldn’t jump and twist in the air (as he might do playing ‘Frisbee’ or ‘Fetch’).
He definitely shouldn’t be jogging along the pavement on your daily run.
If your dog has had surgery or has suffered a previous episode of IVDD, you can use a doggie-stroller for longer walks, or to get him out and about while his mobility is still limited.
Use The Right Equipment
When you’re walking your dog use a harness rather than a collar. This puts a whole lot less strain on the important vertebrae in his neck.
Instead of letting Fido jump up and down off the bed or furniture, buy ramps or steps for him. One for the bed, one for the living room, and one for any other room that needs it.
Here’s our Knox using the ramp my daughters built especially for him!
A doggie stroller is great for long walks. Just lift him into it when you see he’s getting tired or you know that he’s walked far enough.
Use a crate or a playpen to contain him whenever you’re not home and can’t be supervising his movements.
If he jumps off the bed when you’re at work, it could totally undo all your efforts at keeping him safe when you’re home.
June (owned by Lisa Luckenbach) creator of the WiggleLess Back Brace for dogs
Wearing a brace that helps to keep his spinal column aligned properly and prevent him from twisting his torso can also help during recovery.
The Wiggleless Brace fits the bill perfectly.
If your dog didn’t make a full recovery from an acute episode of IVDD, or has chronic weakness/paralysis in his back legs, something to help him get around is going to make life better for everyone.
There are all sorts of ‘carts’ (sort of like wheelchairs for dogs) that have been designed specifically to help dogs in this situation.
Click on the image below to check out a top-quality range of dog wheelchairs, available in sizes and styles to suit all breeds and levels of disability.
They vary in design and price, but there’s literally something to suit every budget.
This website sells simple dog wheelchairs/carts that are very affordable… www.dogstogo.net
You could even make one yourself if you’re a handy DIY type of person. At our last vet appointment with Knox we saw another Doxie with a home-made wheelchair that worked great!
Check out this website for lots of equipment and supplies for senior dogs, or those with mobility or other health problems…. Handicapped Pets – Dog Wheelchairs, Products, Services, Support
Recurring Episodes Of IVDD
Acute episodes of Intervertebral Disc Disease tend not to be a ‘one-off’ occurrence.
Research shows that once a dog has had one close-encounter with IVDD, chances are they’ll have another… overall about 50% will have at least one other episode.
Real-Life Experiences Of Dogs With IVDD
I’ve mentioned Knox on this page, you can read about his entire experience (and ongoing battle) with Intervertebral Disc Disease on this page…. IVDD Experiences in Dogs.
Lisa (creator of the Wiggleless Back Brace for dogs) has also shared the story of her two Dachshund’s experiences with IVDD.
What we’ve learned may help you and your dog as you deal with this condition.
Obviously the risk is higher for dogs who don’t get proper follow-up care, or aren’t what the medical profession calls ‘compliant’ – meaning that they don’t do as they’re told.
If you DO follow all the steps and instructions given by your vet, and outlined above, you can lower the odds for your dog by protecting his vulnerable spinal cord from unnecessary stress and damage.
But there are no guarantees.
Our Knox (who has Type I IVDD because it’s hereditary) had emergency surgery about 18 months ago for an acute episode of IVDD which caused partial paralysis of his hind legs (but he still had some strength there and was able to feel pain in them, a good sign!).
We rushed him to the veterinary hospital and he had surgery inside of 12 hours from onset of the symptoms. He was one of the lucky ones and was up and about almost immediately after the operation.
Knox made a full recovery and the only time you would notice any after-effects were if you watched a video of him moving in slow motion.. then you could see his rear legs dragged just a little.
We hoped the nightmare was over for him. Sadly, not the case.
About two months ago he started to show mild symptoms of pain in his back, but thankfully with no paralysis or weakness. Since then he’s been on Rimadyl (with monthly blood-work to make sure his liver is coping well), plus muscle-relaxants and pain killers when necessary.
He’s getting better, slowly. You can read his story HERE.
Knox’s 5th Birthday Cake (okay, steak!)
We found out that laser disc ablation surgery can be used as a preventative measure to reduce the chance of future disc ruptures before they cause more problems.
As soon as he’s been symptom-free and medication-free for six weeks he’ll be getting his MRI’s done and prepare for that procedure.
Although he’ll always have to live with the possibility of an acute disc rupture, we hope to be able to head off as much of the risk as possible.
Knox Update…. Knox Update…. Knox Update….
July 2015: Knox finally stayed symptom-free long enough to have laser ablation on his vertebrae and the results have been amazing!
Even the slight dragging of his back legs has disappeared and he’s so much happier, right back to where he was before the nightmare started. Such a relief.
We are very hopeful that he remain symptom free for the rest of his life. But through this journey we have learned that things can change in a heartbeat, so he will be watched like a hawk from now on!
April 2017: We are still happy to report that Knox has remained symptom free, happy and active since the laser disc ablation procedure. We are cautiously optimistic that he will stay this way longterm!
Laser Disc Ablation was pioneered at the Oklahoma State University and the work/studies done there show a 96.6% success rate in preventing future episodes of IVDD in dogs who undergo the procedure.
It’s a relatively simple surgery which requires a general anesthetic, an overnight stay, and an approximately two week reduced activity recovery period.
This is something you might want to discuss with your own veterinarian if you find your dog is in a similar position.
The Future Treatment For IVDD?
Although medication, surgery and preventative laser ablation are all effective in treating IVDD, veterinary medicine is always moving forward and there is another treatment currently being studied.
This video gave me a lump in my throat as it’s a bit close to home for us, but the potential shown by stem-cell treatment is awesome and I hope that sometime soon this is available as a main-stream alternative to the type of invasive surgery Knox went through…