Back pain is a veterinary emergency for your dog. Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a serious condition that can damage your dog’s spinal cord, and potentially cause significant mobility issues. Our Town & Country Animal Hospital team provides information about this disease, so you know what to expect if your dog is affected.

Understanding intervertebral disc disease in dogs

The spine is composed of several small bones called vertebrae. The dog has seven cervical (i.e., neck) vertebrae, 13 thoracic (i.e., chest) vertebrae, seven lumbar (i.e., lower back) vertebrae, three fused sacral (i.e., between the back and tail) vertebrae, and a varying number of caudal (i.e., tail) vertebrae. These vertebral bones are connected by joints called intervertebral discs, which have a tough, flexible shell (i.e., the annulus fibrosus) that protects a soft, pulpy center (i.e. the nucleus pulposus), and allow the back to be flexible. Different disease processes can affect the intervertebral discs, and damage the spinal cord. IVVD types in dogs include:

  • IVDD type I — Most commonly affecting young to middle-aged chondrodystrophoid breeds, such as Dachshunds, beagles, basset hounds, and Pekingese, IVDD type I occurs when the nucleus pulposus hardens, breaks through the annulus fibrosus, enters the intervertebral space, and puts pressure on the spinal cord.
  • IVDD type II — Most commonly affecting middle-aged to older large-breed dogs, such as German shepherds and Labrador retrievers, IVDD type II occurs when the annulus fibrosus degenerates, allows disc material to enter the intervertebral disc space, and puts pressure on the spinal cord. 

Recognizing intervertebral disc disease in dogs

IVDD can affect the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine, and signs will depend on the lesion location and rupture severity. Specific signs by location include:

  • Cervical IVDD — When the lesion occurs in a cervical disc, the dog experiences neck pain that they exhibit by a lowered head, and a reluctance to move their head. Other signs may include incoordination in all four limbs, reluctance to move, knuckling of all four paws, and an inability to move.
  • Thoracic IVDD — When a thoracic disc is affected, the dog experiences pain where the lesion occurs, and may show signs that include crossing the back limbs when walking, weakness or inability to move the hind limbs, knuckling over the back paws, and dragging the hind limbs.
  • Lumbar IVDD — When a lumbar disc is involved, the dog experiences pain where the lesion occurs, and may show signs that include difficulty jumping, a limp tail, and urinary or fecal incontinence.

Staging intervertebral disc disease in dogs

Staging IVDD is important, because this will help determine your dog’s prognosis and influence treatment recommendations. IVDD progression includes:

  • Stage one — Dogs with stage one IVDD have neck or back pain where the rupture occurred, but no neurological deficits.
  • Stage two — Dogs with stage two IVDD are able to walk, but appear uncoordinated and knuckle over when they walk. 
  • Stage three — Dogs with stage three IVDD are able to move their limbs, but cannot stand or walk.
  • Stage four — Dogs with stage four IVDD cannot move their limbs, but they maintain deep pain perception.
  • Stage five — Dogs with stage five IVDD cannot move their limbs, and have no deep pain perception.

Diagnosing intervertebral disc disease in dogs

Diagnostics are required to rule out other potential causes and to localize the rupture. Techniques commonly used include:

  • Neurological examination — We evaluate your dog’s reflexes, and their ability to move, stand, and perceive pain.
  • X-rays — Plain X-rays can detect the lesion location in about 60% of cases, and these views can also rule out other potential causes.
  • Myelogram —Contrast dye in conjunction with X-rays is a more sensitive technique to localize the lesion.
  • Advanced imaging — In some cases, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is necessary for accurate IVDD diagnosis.

Treating intervertebral disc disease in dogs

Treatment depends on the dog’s IVDD stage. Options include:

  • Conservative treatment — A conservative treatment approach is reasonable for dogs in IVDD stage one and two. Strict confinement for at least three to four weeks is crucial so that scar tissue can form over the affected disc, which reduces pain and prevents further disc herniation. For large dogs, provide a small room without furniture, and for small dogs, a crate or playpen. To help control your dog’s discomfort, anti-inflammatories and pain medications may be prescribed in the initial stages. If your dog does not improve after four weeks, surgery may be necessary.
  • Surgical treatment — For dogs who don’t respond to conservative treatment and for those in IVDD stage three and higher, surgical intervention is usually necessary to remove the herniated disc material and relieve the pressure on the spinal cord. If your dog has mobility issues, they have a better chance of recovery if they undergo surgery as soon as possible. Most dogs are hospitalized for three to seven days after surgery, and recovery typically takes about three to six weeks. Diligent nursing care is important during this time to ensure your dog has no postoperative complications. 

Prompt treatment is important if your dog is affected by IVDD. If your dog is experiencing neck or back pain, contact our Town & Country Animal Hospital team as soon as possible, so we can ensure they receive the care they need.