This post was reviewed by Sara Ochoa, DVM on September 12, 2022
Nothing is worse than seeing your dog in pain. IVDD (intervertebral disc disease) in dogs is a condition that causes the discs that cushion the spine to deteriorate.
There’s a good chance you know someone who’s experienced a slipped disk. If so, you know how painful it is.
Unfortunately, dogs have a way of hiding their pain in the interest of self-preservation. You might not know that your dog has a problem at all in the early stages of IVDD.
Pain in dogs can arise from any number of situations. However, if your dog recently experienced sudden pain from a jump or has been progressively getting weak in the rear legs, you might want to keep reading to find out if he/she is suffering from IVDD.
The severity of IVDD in dogs is scored on a grading scale from 1 – 5, with “1” showing less severe symptoms and “5” being a medical emergency.
What is IVDD in Dogs?
Intervertebral Disk Disease is a serious problem affecting the spinal column. It can lead to permanent disability and paralysis if not treated.
IVDD is also known as Thoracolumbar Intervertebral Disc Disease. It’s a broad term used to describe a cluster of disc degeneration and neurologic disease cause by a ruptured disc.
Watch Your Daschund! There’s a Very Good Chance He/She Will Suffer From IVDD.
Hansen Type 1
If your dog’s condition falls within Type 1, it means there has been a disc herniation. It’s an acute condition where the center of the disc bursts out and compresses the spinal cord.
This happens when the inner jelly-like substance dries out and can no longer function as a shock-absorber.
A ruptured disk causes extreme pain and can occur anywhere along the spine, although *80% (source: Veterinary Surgical Centers) occur in the middle of the back.
Dachshunds are most likely to suffer from Type 1. The damage caused depends on the how much material is expelled from the disc and how quickly it happens.
Other short-legged breeds that can be affected include:
- Shih Tzus
- Bassett Hounds
- Cocker Spaniels
Spinal Disc Definition
When we talk about “discs” we’re referring to the soft shock-absorbing cushions that separate each section of the vertebrae.
These discs are what prevent bones from grinding against each other and allow movement in the spine.
In a healthy dog, these discs contain a jelly-like substance (medically known as nucleus pulposus) that act as the shock-absorbers.
The outside of the disk consists of ring-like tissue that is rich in collagen. In dogs with IVDD, the jelly-like substance begins to dry out.
Once the moisture is gone, the center of the disk turns to dry and brittle and the protective disk cannot do its job of allowing pain-free movement.
Hansen Type 2
Dogs who fall into this category generally have back problems similar to people.
Unlike Type 1 that primarily affects short-legged breeds, Type 2 can affect any dog. You’re more likely to see middle to large breeds somewhere in the age group of 5 to 12.
The main difference between the two types is that the first one is a complete, dramatic rupture. In Type 2, the material inside the disc gradually seeps out and, overtime, compresses the spinal column.
Both types can lead to ruptured discs which can cause:
- Nerve Damage
- Severe Pain
- Difficulty Walking
- Eventual Paralysis
Caring for a Dog with IVDD
The type of treatment required will depend on where your dog falls within the grading scale.
- Dogs who fall into the Hansen Type 1 category already show signs of a ruptured disc and, therefore, likely fall into a higher grade.
- Dogs who fall into the Hansen Type 2 category have a progressive condition that is more likely to follow the grading score from 1 – 5.
As we go through the five-point grading scale, keep in mind that by the time you notice anything is wrong, your dog may already be in Grade 3 or higher.
At this stage, your dog will show signs of pain somewhere along the spine. Your dog will still be able to walk normally, but you can tell it’s painful.
For mild to moderate injury, treatment may involve steroids and anti-inflammatory medications. Your dog may be prescribed confined rest for up to six weeks or more.
At Grade 2, your dog is in pain and may wobble when walking.
Surgery may be recommended at this stage. If surgery is performed while your dog can still walk, the outcomes are much better. In fact, it’s recommended that surgery occur within 24 hours of diagnosis.
At this point, your dog will not be able to stand up without help. He/she will be in a lot of pain.
Your veterinarian may suggest surgery. Your dog still has a good chance of rehabilitation, but it will take time. Muscle strengthening through physical therapy exercises, pain medications, and patience will be required.
Dogs typically walk within 1 – 3 weeks, though some take 2 months or more… up to 90% make a full recovery.Clinical Grading Scale for Thoracolumbar Intervertebral Disc Disease – The Rehab Vet.
Your dog may lose bladder and/or bowel control at this stage. He/she will be in a lot of pain and will not be able to move his/her affected limbs.
At this stage, your dog will probably still have some feeling in the extremities.
Surgery will increase your dog’s chances of walking again. In some cases, non-surgical treatment may be an option although the recovery rate is thought to be much lower.
Regardless of whether your dog undergoes surgery or not, you will need to be his/her nurse for a while. Soft bedding, a large crate for recovery, and gentle exercise will be required.
Always ask your veterinarian for the best at-home treatment care.
Paralysis. No deep pain. Loss of bladder control.
Surgery will need to be performed within 48 hours of paralysis if possible. The faster the surgery is performed, the better the outcome. The prognosis is tricky at this stage.
Talk to your veterinarian about the risks and rewards of IVDD surgery.
13 Critical Signs of IVDD in Dogs to Watch Out For
#1. Reluctant to Move But Can if Prompted
In the early stages of IVDD, your dog will be in pain but can still walk without assistance. It’s always a good idea to visit the veterinarian, especially if you have reason to suspect a back injury.
If your dog experiences a sudden herniated disc, he/she will be in considerable pain. That pain can be expressed in a number of ways including crying out, shivering, and arching the back.
The spinal cord conveys information to and from the brain to produce movement, sensation, urination, and defecation. Spinal cord injuries are a common problem in dogs, accounting for approximately 2% of all cases that present to the veterinarianRESEARCH LAB – DEPARTMENT OF CLINICAL SCIENCES
Canine Spinal Cord Injury Program
#3. Weak & Wobbly
If your dog can walk but is weak or wobbly in the rear legs, it could mean that extruded material from a slipped disc is pressing on the spinal cord.
Spinal cord compression can create a variety of problems including partial paralysis.
#4. Tense Belly
You should be able to gently palpate a healthy dog’s stomach. If you were to gently apply pressure to the tummy you would notice softness and a little spring-back feeling.
When a dog is in severe pain, however, the tummy can feel hard and rigid.
That rigidness is a defense mechanism, a way for the dog to try and stop any further movement that could trigger more pain.
Note: A tense belly in the absence of the signs above could indicate a number of other serious conditions. Consult a veterinarian if your dog is showing any signs of pain.
#5. Arching Back
An injury to the upper back/neck will cause pain and possibly stiffness. A dog might arch his/her back as a result of pain or injury due to a herniated disc.
#6. Back Legs Cross When Walking
Pressure along the sensitive spinal column disrupts the signals to the brain.
When this happens, the dog seems to forget how to walk. Instead of moving in it’s normal fluid gait, you might notice legs splaying or crossing in the back.
#7. Knuckling Over
Knuckling over refers to a dog walking on the top of his/her paw.
If you dog doesn’t show any of the other signs of IVDD, knuckling could be caused by something else.
Older dogs can develop a disease similar to ALS in humans known as degenerative myelopathy. It can also be related to malformations in puppies, or tumors.
Dogs within the grade 2 – 3 zone may have a harder time walking. As a result, they end up stumbling.
Stumbling can be caused by nerve damage (sends the wrong message to the brain), from pain, or the inability to apply weight to one leg.
As the dog stumbles it appears as if he/she were drunk. For that reason, it’s been called a “sailor’s” gait.
#9. Can Move Legs & Wag Tail But Cannot Apply Weight
At this point, your dog cannot move without assistance. He/she is likely in a lot of pain and needs veterinarian attention.
#10. Loss of Appetite
Loss of appetite can occur for any number of reasons in dogs, but it’s most likely a result of chronic pain if your dog is suffering from disk disease.
#11. Unable to Move But Can Feel the Rear Toes
Paralysis occurs at around grade 4 – 5 in dogs with IVDD. Damage to the spinal column cannot send appropriate messages to the brain. As a result, the legs simply stop working.
If your dog can still feel sensation in the rear toes, he’s likely in a lot of pain. This is because the pain receptors haven’t completely shut off yet.
#12. Unable to Move or Feel Back Legs.
At this point, the dog is considered paralyzed and needs surgery to repair the damage caused by IVDD.
#13. Loss of Bladder & Bowel Control
A paralyzed dog cannot excrete urine or bowels and needs a person to express it for him/her.
Frequently Asked Questions about IVDD in Dogs
What Are the First Signs My Dog Might Have Intervertebral Disc Disease?
If your dog is suffering from IVDD, the first thing he’s going to feel is pain. Dogs are experts at keeping pain from their owners so it’s important to know the subtle signs including holding his/her neck low. Other signs to watch for include:
- Limping on the back limbs (one or both)
- Urinary incontinence
- Shivering or panting
- Doesn’t seem able to lift his/her head
- Wobbly gait
Do Dogs With IVDD Always Need Surgery?
Non-surgical treatments could be an option in less severe cases. However, severe cases require urgent care. The idea behind non-surgical treatment is to alleviate pain and improve mobility, bladder and bowel control.
Treatments may include:
- Anti-inflammatory medications
- Dietary Care
- Physical rehabilitation
When Should You Euthanize a Dog with IVDD
Nobody ever wants to be in this position. However, in severe cases where there is no realistic chance of recovery, euthanasia may be an option. It’s definitely a last resort.
Speak to your veterinarian about all the options available to help your dog before making the difficult decision. You never know what new treatments or procedures there are.
Yunnan Baiyao for Dogs – 5 Critical Things You Should Know
Gabapentin for Dogs – Safe Pain Relief
11 First Signs of Hip Dysplasia in Dogs
Short-legged dogs like the Dachshund are more likely to experience a slipped or herniated disc.
It might happen suddenly (from a jump) or develop slowly over time. Regardless, it’s important to see veterinary care for any signs of back pain in your dog.
The earlier you catch a slipped disc in dogs, the better the outcome. Compression of fluid on the spinal cord can cause permanent damage and, without treatment, can seriously compromise your dog’s quality of life.
I hope you were able to learn something from this post. Please remember that this material has not been reviewed by a veterinarian. Always seek medical advice for your pets.
Please take a second to share! It helps me to continue writing this blog and helping dog owners just like you.
NC State Veterinarian Hospital
Dept of Clinical Sciences of Companion Animals, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University