Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a serious condition in dogs that typically causes significant pain and can potentially lead to paralysis. Our Columbia Pike Animal Hospital team offers information about this concerning disease, in case your dog is at risk. 

Dog back anatomy

Knowing the normal spinal anatomy is important to understand IVDD. The dog’s spine, which supports their weight and encloses and protects the spinal cord, is composed of numerous vertebral bones that allow back flexibility. Dogs have seven cervical (i.e., neck) vertebrae, 13 thoracic (i.e., upper back, where the ribs attach) vertebrae, seven lumbar (i.e., lower back) vertebrae, three sacral (i.e., between the back and tail) vertebrae, and a varying number of caudal (i.e., tail) vertebrae, depending on the dog’s breed. The vertebrae are separated by intervertebral discs that form a fibrocartilaginous joint that allows slight vertebral movements, hold the vertebrae together, and act as the spine’s shock absorber. The discs are composed of a tough, flexible capsule and a soft, jelly-like center. 

Intervertebral disc disease in dogs

The dog’s intervertebral discs can be affected by two disease processes that result in IVDD. 

  • Type I — In IVDD type I, the jelly-like center calcifies and the capsule becomes brittle, resulting in disc rupture, and allowing the disc material to enter the spinal canal and put pressure on the sensitive spinal cord. Type I typically affects breeds characterized by short legs and long backs, such as Dachshunds, basset hounds, beagles, and Lhasa apsos. Signs typically manifest between 3 and 6 years of age.
  • Type II — In IVDD type II, the outer capsule slowly degenerates, and disc material protrudes into the spinal canal. Type II typically affects large breeds, such as German shepherds and Labrador retrievers. Signs typically manifest between 5 and 12 years of age.

Intervertebral disc disease signs in dogs

When an intervertebral disc ruptures and places pressure on the spinal cord, brain-to-limb signals are compromised. A dog’s signs depend on the disc affected—if a cervical disc ruptures, all four limbs may be affected, and if a thoracic or lumbar disc ruptures, only the hind limbs are affected—and the rupture severity. IVDD signs progress as follows:

  • Stage one — Stage one dogs have neck or back pain over the ruptured disc with no neurological deficits.
  • Stage two — Stage two dogs are able to walk, but are uncoordinated and have proprioception deficits, and knuckle their paws.
  • Stage three — Stage three dogs are able to move their limbs, but cannot stand or walk.
  • Stage four — Stage four dogs can’t move their limbs, but they maintain deep pain perception.
  • Stage five — Stage five dogs can’t move their limbs, and have no deep pain perception.

Intervertebral disc disease diagnosis in dogs

When a dog presents with neck or back pain and neurological deficits, diagnostics must be performed to determine if IVDD is the problem and where the rupture occurred. Tests include:

  • Neurological examination — We evaluate your dog’s ability to walk, and assess their reflexes and pain perception. 
  • Plain X-rays — The spinal cord and intervertebral discs cannot be seen on plain X-rays, but this imaging technique is useful to assess the spinal column’s continuity, as well as to rule out other conditions such as spinal fractures and luxations. 
  • Computed tomography (CT scan) — A CT scan involves taking cross-sectional X-ray images of the spine, to image the mineralized disc material. 
  • Myelogram — In some cases, we use contrast dye in conjunction with a CT scan to determine the rupture location. 

Intervertebral disc disease treatment in dogs

IVDD can be treated medically or surgically, depending on the disease stage and progression. Options include:

  • Medical management — Medical treatment can be successful for dogs in IVDD stage one and two. Treatment involves strict confinement for three to four weeks, when running and jumping on or off furniture is strictly prohibited. Pain and anti-inflammatory medications are typically prescribed during the first two weeks to help alleviate the dog’s discomfort. Physical therapy exercises are also useful to help improve the dog’s return to normal function.
  • Surgical management — For dogs affected by IVDD stage three and higher, and those who have IVDD stage one and two with ongoing neck and back pain despite appropriate medical therapy, surgery is often necessary to remove the herniated disc material and alleviate the pressure on the spinal cord. 

Intervertebral disc disease prevention in dogs

IVDD has a strong genetic component and can’t be completely prevented, but steps you can take to decrease your dog’s risk include:

  • Maintaining an ideal weight — Dogs, especially those at high risk, should be kept at a slightly thin body weight to reduce neck and back stress.
  • Using a harness — Use a harness-style leash to distribute weight across the dog’s chest and reduce neck stress.
  • Minimizing jumping — Take steps to prevent your dog from jumping on and off furniture and in and out of cars. 

IVDD can significantly impact your dog’s quality of life, but you can take steps to decrease their risk. If your dog is exhibiting back pain or neurological deficits, contact our Columbia Pike Animal Hospital team, so we can determine if IVDD is causing the problem.