IVDD (Intervertebral Disc Disease) in Dogs: Symptoms, Causes & Surgery

Intervertebral disc disease is an age-related, degenerative condition that can bring on painful symptoms for your dog, and it’s seen more often in some breeds than others. Our Westport vets define the disease and describe symptoms, causes and treatment, including surgery. 


What IVDD (Intervertebral Disc Disease) in Dogs?

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a common spinal disease found in dogs (it can also sometimes afflict cats).

Usually, dogs with intervertebral disc disease require spinal surgery to address the problem.

Dogs’ intervertebral discs consist of cartilage surrounded by a ring of fibrous tissue that serves as a cushion between vertebrae surrounding the spinal cord. These discs are found between every set of vertebrae but the first two.

Healthy discs provide flexibility to the spine, absorb shock, and enable your dog’s body to move as it should (extending, flexing and twisting) while performing high-energy activities such as jumping and running. 

Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs, Westport Vets

Types of Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs

There are three types of IVDD in dogs:

Type 1

In each disc, there are two parts: fibrous annulus fibrosis and a gelatinous center known as nucleus pulposus. Tears in the outer part of the disc (annulus fibrosis) lead to a rupture of the middle portion of the disc (nucleus pulposus). Also known as a slipped disc, this type of disc disease can occur anywhere along the spine. Symptoms may include a sudden inability to walk.

Calcification can happen when the nucleus pulposus loses normal water content. The middle part of the back is especially susceptible to disc herniations, which is where most of them occur. Clinical symptoms may vary from pain to paralysis as the disc is strained to an intolerable level and the spinal cord is compressed.

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

This type of IVDD is a painful condition. Severe cases are emergencies that your vet should examine immediately.

Type 2

This condition will typically progress more slowly and may or may not be painful. It is caused by a chronic bulging of the outer part of the disc (the annulus) on the spinal cord, which can become chronically compressed, resulting in atrophy.

Sometimes the annulus may become torn and fragmented. The fragmented piece can potentially compress the spinal cord. With this type, symptoms may develop quietly but still progress.

This type of IVDD appears most commonly in middle-aged to older (5 to 12 years) medium and large-breed dogs. You may notice symptoms similar to those of Type 1 IVDD.

Type 3

This type usually occurs as a result of trauma or heavy exercise that causes in a sudden tear in the annulus, resulting in sudden onset of the disease. Though this type of IVDD does not lead to chronic compression of the spinal cord, it is a painful condition that may cause your dog to have difficulty controlling his hind limbs and walking.

Complete paralysis can occur and severe cases may be fatal if the spinal cord softens and dies (which impacts the nerves your dog uses to breathe, leading to respiratory arrest. Patients who survive may recover without surgery by attending physiotherapy and undergoing rehabilitation.

What are symptoms of Intervertebral Disc Disease?

Depending on which type of IVDD your dog has, signs can vary. Symptoms may include:

  • Shivering or panting
  • Hunched back or stiff appearance
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Limping on one or both front limbs
  • Weak, uncoordinated movement within hind limbs or four limbs
  • Back or neck pain
  • Unable to fully lift the head
  • Holding the back low
  • Paralysis in four limbs or difficulty breathing (severe cases that qualify as surgical emergencies)

Severe cases are especially difficult for most owners to watch as they can entail inability to feel painful sensations, lost bladder function, and/or paralysis.

What causes Intervertebral Disc Disease? Is it treatable or curable?

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

Just like people, dogs become more vulnerable to certain diseases as they age. Fortunately, our Westport vets are experienced in providing attentive geriatric veterinary care to senior cats and dogs. A trained eye and early diagnosis is key, and may save your pet's life. 

IVDD Surgery for Dogs

Cost of treatment for IVDD in dogs will depend on your pet’s specific condition, the procedure and treatment approach used, and many other factors.

To diagnose the condition, your vet will use advanced diagnostic imaging and perform a comprehensive physical examination.

He or she may be able to treat a mild case of IVDD conservatively by restricting movement (which would involve confining your dog to a cage) and pain relief, though dogs suffering from paralysis will probably require surgery. Your dog may be able to walk again pain-free.

If your dog is not responding to pain, this is a surgical emergency and prognosis for improvement is unfortunately poor.

The surgery may take between 1 and 3 hours, depending on the complexity of the procedure. Your dog will then need to rest and be monitored and assessed while he recovers. Physiotherapy will also be essential to his progress (your vet can make specific recommendations regarding this).

Long-term, dogs who do not regain their ability to walk may use a custom-built mobility cart. However, their bladder control may be limited. You may need to empty his bladder manually (owners can learn how to do this as they prepare to take their dog home).

Following successful spinal surgery, dogs do not typically experience problems with the same disc. However, remaining discs can degenerate and cause further problems. If possible, other discs are fenestrated during the procedure to reduce the risk of recurring IVDD.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Do you suspect your dog is suffering from Intervertebral Disc Disease? The veterinarians at Poster Veterinary Associates are experienced in identifying and surgically treating (if necessary) many conditions and illnesses in dogs. Book an appointment today. 

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