Just like people, pups can develop bad backs. And sometimes, the pain and discomfort of a bad back is due to what we call a “slipped disc” in the human world. In the veterinary world, the technical term is Intervertebral Disc Disease or IVDD.
While IVDD is a fairly common spinal problem in dogs, it can be tricky to diagnose without sophisticated tests. Still, with early detection, IVDD can be treated, which makes understanding the signs and symptoms a helpful tool for any pet parent.
IVDD is a disease that affects the disc-shaped cushions of tissue between the bones on the back (vertebrae). These cushions (called intervertebral discs) have a thick, tough covering on the outside, with a softer, gel-like interior. Not only do these cushions keep backbones from rubbing against each other when your pooch moves, but they also protect the spinal cord from damage as the cord travels down the middle of the spine.
As your dog ages, the tough, outer portion of the disc may start to break down. At the same time, the inner portion of the disc may begin to harden. If the exterior breaks down enough, it can cause the interior to bulge out and press against the spinal cord. This can also be referred to as herniation or rupture. The pressure caused by the bulging disc can cause serious damage to the spinal cord. This is commonly called a “slipped disc."
The rupturing process can happen over a period of weeks or in a moment. So a dog that appears healthy and happy one minute can suddenly present odd symptoms and signs of pain.
All dogs are susceptible to IVDD, but some smaller breeds are more prone to the disease. Pooches that are lower to the ground, like Dachshunds, Corgis, and Basset Hounds, have been selectively bred to have a form of dwarfism, which gives them their low-slung stature. But the genetic trait that makes them ground-hugging canines also affects cartilage growth (the main component of intervertebral discs) throughout their bodies.
The result is disc calcification – the hardening of the intervertebral disc. This can begin as early as two years of age. Often this process is happening along with disc deterioration from normal dog life described above, which puts these canines at a much greater risk for IVDD.
The onset of IVDD is often accompanied by pain and a change in the way your dog moves. The bulging disc pressing against the spinal cord disrupts nerve signals to the limbs and bladder. This causes a range of mild to severe symptoms. The more the disc presses into the spinal cord, the more aggressive the symptoms can become.
Pet parents might observe a new swaying gait when their dog walks. They may drag one or both limbs. Many times there is a reluctance to jump on or off furniture or lower the head to a food bowl to eat. These symptoms may also be accompanied by a loss of bladder control.
A damaged spinal cord can also affect a dog’s perception of pain. In some cases, a pooch might constantly hold up a paw because the nerve blockage has tricked the brain into sensing pain when the dog steps.
The slow onset of these symptoms is usually due to a slow rupturing disc that is progressively damaging the spinal cord. However, some ruptures can happen extremely quickly with tremendous force. A dog that might have been living normally may suddenly become completely paralyzed within moments of an IVDD event.
If your pet pal is displaying symptoms of IVDD, your veterinarian should be consulted immediately.
Other disease processes can share symptoms with IVDD, including fractures, vertebral tumors, or infections. Your practitioner will likely start with a thorough neurological exam to rule out those factors and try to track down the injury’s location. This exam may include diagnostic tests like a radiograph (X-ray). It should be noted that the spinal cord and discs are invisible on a standard X-ray, so other tests may be required.
If IVDD is suspected after the initial exam, a procedure called a myelogram will probably be conducted. Your pup will need to be put under anesthesia for the process, which requires a special dye to be injected into the spine, so the disc and spinal cord appear on the X-rays. Additional tests like a CT scan or MRI may also be needed, especially if surgery is required. A surgeon might need this precise imaging to conduct the best surgical treatment.
A dog’s spinal surgery can cost upwards of thousands of dollars.* If you’ve invested in ASPCA Pet Health Insurance, you may receive assistance for covering the costs of IVDD diagnostic testing and treatment, as well as the costs of many other veterinary services. Learn more about what’s covered.
Many pet parents may wonder, “Can a dog recover from IVDD without surgery?” There are several treatment options for IVDD that can help your dog recover. Although, depending on the severity of spinal cord damage, a full recovery may not be possible.
In less severe cases, some dogs may benefit from anti-inflammatory medication to reduce swelling in the spinal cord, which can reduce pain and allow the spinal cord to begin healing. Strict crate-rest and absolutely minimal movement for up to six weeks usually accompany this treatment.
Many pups will respond well to non-surgical intervention and can get back to regular activity. Still, harnesses may be recommended for walking, along with steps or ramps to minimize jumping on and off of furniture and beds.
There are times when a dog isn’t able to tolerate medication, or surgery isn’t an option for health or financial reasons. In these cases, there is evidence that acupuncture can help a pet friend feel less pain and even regain some mobility. The mechanism for how and why acupuncture works is still being studied. Most dogs will tolerate acupuncture needles very well.
In more severe cases of IVDD, a veterinary surgeon may need to operate on your pooch in order to remove the material damaging the spinal cord. The most common form of surgery is called a laminectomy. The procedure involves an incision in the dog’s back that provides access to the affected area to remove the tissue pressing against the spinal cord.
Typically this surgery can require hospitalization of up to 10 days post-operation. Aftercare will include strict crate rest. In some cases where a pet’s bladder has been affected, they may need to be carried outside for potty time and have their bladder manually expressed through external massage.
In some rare cases of IVDD, a dog may experience permanent and irreversible paralysis in their hindquarters. There are still ways to manage pain in these cases and allow the pooch to move around freely.
A special wheelchair called the K-9 cart allows dogs to rest their backsides while using their front legs to pull themselves along. In this situation, many pups can live happy lives with very few restrictions on the kind of movement they experienced before IVDD. They will still be able to fetch, play freely, and join their pet parent for invigorating walks.
Old age is the primary culprit of IVDD, but there are things pet parents can do (especially with susceptible breeds) that can help keep the disease at bay.
With smaller breeds, walking with a harness is always a good idea. Proper weight management can help prevent undue stress on the dog’s back. Finally, it’s never too early to provide steps or ramps to help your pet on and off beds and high furniture.
*Internal Claims Data, 2019
The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.