Reviewed and updated for accuracy on February 27, 2020 by Dr. Hanie Elfenbein, DVM, PhD
Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) in dogs is a condition where the cushioning discs between the vertebrae (bones) of the spinal column either bulge or burst into the spinal cord space. This is commonly called a herniated disc or slipped disc.
These discs then press on the nerves running through the spinal cord, causing pain, nerve damage, and even paralysis.
Here’s what you need to know about IVDD in dogs and how you can help your dog.
Symptoms and Types of IVDD in Dogs
Made up of a gelatinous substance surrounded by a thick outer layer, intervertebral discs are basically the shock absorbers of the spine.
There are two types of disc herniation seen in dogs: Type I and Type II.
Type II generally has less severe signs and symptoms.
Symptoms of IVDD in dogs may include:
Unwillingness to jump
Pain and weakness in rear legs (lameness)
Crying out in pain
Hunched back or neck with tense muscles
Reduced appetite and activity level
Causes of IVDD in Dogs
Type I and Type II of IVDD have different root causes.
Causes of Type I IVDD in Dogs
In Type I, common in the mid-back region of smaller breeds, discs develop a hardening (or calcification) of the outer layer.
This damages the disc, allowing it to break down easier. Any forceful impact such as jumping and landing, or even just stepping the wrong way, can cause one or more disc(s) to burst and the inner material to press on the spinal cord.
This is most common in small dog breeds with long backs and short legs.
Causes of Type II IVDD in Dogs
With Type II herniation, the discs become hardened and fibrous over a long period of time and eventually break down, bulge out, and compress the spinal cord.
Type II IVDD is more common in older, large-breed dogs.
Spinal Cord Compression
When the nerves of a dog’s spinal cord are compressed, the nerve impulses are not able to transmit their signals to the limbs, bladder, etc. If the damage is severe enough, paralysis and loss of bladder and bowel control can occur.
Depending on the location of the disc that is bulging, signs occur anywhere in the dog’s body, from the neck to the rear legs. One side of the body may be more severely affected than the other.
Diagnosing Back Problems in Dogs
The vet exam will include a complete neurologic exam, which will help identify where in the spinal cord the injury is located.
X-rays may show an abnormal area in the spine. However, because the spinal cord does not appear on x-rays, special imaging may be necessary to locate the source of the injury.
Once such procedure, called a myelogram, injects a special dye into the area surrounding the spinal cord so it will appear on x-rays. This test requires your dog to be put under anesthesia.
In some cases, further testing such as an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or CT (computed tomography) scan can also be used to locate where the nerves are being pinched, which is necessary for surgical repair.
Treating IVDD in Dogs
Depending on the severity of the damage to your dog’s spinal cord, treatment can range from conservative to surgical.
Conservative IVDD Treatment
Conservative care usually includes treatment with drugs such as steroids or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories along with one or more types of pain control to reduce the swelling and pain.
Your dog must also be kept in a crate to prevent further damage from occurring. The exact length of strict rest depends on your dog's specific injury and rate of healing. After a period of rest, he may gradually return to normal activity.
Physical rehabilitation is often recommended.
Surgical Treatment for IVDD
If the damage is too severe and the dog is paralyzed or incontinent, conservative treatment may not be enough.
In these cases, emergency surgery is needed to open up the space. This is done by removing a portion of the bony vertebrae over the spinal cord (laminectomy) to relieve pressure on the spinal cord.
Even after surgery, however, the dog may not recover fully. The decision to pursue surgery must be made quickly. Waiting too long with a severe injury can greatly reduce the likelihood that the surgery restores function.
Treatment of Back Spasms in Dogs
Most animals with IVDD have spasms of the back muscles. Treatment for this symptom usually includes heat and massage techniques along with medications.
Methocarbamol, a muscle relaxant, is commonly used for dogs with back spasms. It acts directly on the nervous system instead of on the muscles themselves.
Managing IVDD in Dogs
Many dogs that have a mild to moderate case of IVDD will get feeling back in their legs and be able to walk again if you closely follow your veterinarian's recommendations.
Post-surgery rehabilitation is important to help dogs regain function and improve recovery.
The quality of life for your dog can be good if given proper nursing care. Despite this, some dogs need to use a special cart (like a wheelchair for pets) to be mobile and active again.
Dogs who have one herniated disc are more likely to have subsequent episodes. Physical rehabilitation therapy can help strengthen your dog’s muscles and improve their long-term prognosis.
Preventing IVDD and Back Problems in Dogs
In dog breeds that are predisposed to IVDD, keeping them at a healthy, lean weight will help reduce the stress on their spine and other joints.
Walking your dog with a harness will keep stress off their neck, too, especially if your dog tends to pull on the leash.
Use steps or ramps to help your get up on furniture and beds, and try to limit jumping.
Because of the congenital nature of this disease, your veterinarian will most likely recommend against breeding dogs with IVDD.