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What is IVDD  or Slipped Discs in Dogs?

What is IVDD or Slipped Discs in Dogs?

Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) is a degenerative disease that can affect your dog’s spinal cord and causes a range of painful mobility issues. IVDD in dogs is also sometimes referred to as a ruptured, slipped, bulging or a herniated disk. This condition is most commonly seen in Beagles, Dachshunds, Pekingese, Shih Tzus, Corgis, Basset Hounds or French Bulldogs but may occur in dogs of any breed.

IVDD Dog Back Braces Here

IVDD in Dogs

Many of us are familiar with the image of a spine, with all the vertebrae like a chain going down the back of your dog and into their tail. Between these vertebrae are disks called intervertebral discs, these disks have a further ring of cartilage with a gel-like inner core (think of a sandwich, where the cartilage is the two pieces of bread and the gel is the filling).

These disks are very important, they support the vertebrae and without these disks your dog would not be able to bend, turn or flex their spine.

Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) is a condition where the spine 'herniates' which means the spinal cord compresses, causing lasting and debilitating damage. The intervertebral discs act as shock absorbers between the vertebrae, providing cushioning, are supportive and allow for flexibility in the spine. IVDD occurs when these discs degenerate or herniate, leading to spinal cord compression and neurological symptoms.

IVDD can occur in any of the discs along your dog’s spine, from their neck to their lower back consequently, the symptoms they experience will depend upon which part of the spine is affected and how severe the damage is. The majority of IVDD issues occur in the thoracolumbar region of the spine (the back) however sometimes it is just the neck region which is affected or it can even be a combination of both these areas.

"My Frenchie had an IVDD flare up and the vet said she had Stage 1 or 2. So we are on meds, rest and a back brace"

"My Frenchie had an IVDD flare up and the vet said she had Stage 1 or 2. So we are on meds, rest and a back brace"

Back Braces for IVDD

There are two major types of IVDD:

  • Hansen Type 1: This happens when the soft, jelly-like centre of the spinal disc (nuclei pulposi)  becomes hardened over time. The trigger can be something as simple and everyday as jumping up onto the sofa. With one wrong jump, sudden impact, or twist, this rock-like disc shoots out of its thick shell and pushes upward into the spinal cord and its surrounding nerves. This movement of the disc material (called a herniation) causes compression and bruising of the spinal cord, and, therefore can also cause paralysis. Because of its action, Hansen Type 1 is characterised by sudden, sharp pain but the degree of damage and consequent disability varies. This form of IVDD is more commonly seen in Chondrodystrophic breeds (dogs with long backs but relatively short legs) such as Daschunds, Shih Tzus and Corgis.

  • Hansen Type II: This type is a slower, degenerative process where the soft disc material intrudes on the spinal cord and spinal nerves over time, this can be either over months or years. What happens is the thick fibres around the soft disc material will slowly collapse over time and push upwards, thus causing more chronic, long-term pain and spinal cord compression. This in turn causes progressive paralysis. This form of IVDD is more common in larger breeds of dogs such as German Shepards, Labradors and Dobermans.

Signs and Symptoms of IVDD

IVDD can occur in any of the discs in your dog’s spine.  Symptoms of this condition will depend upon which part of the spine is affected and how severe the damage is.

Statistics indicate that 65% of IVDD issues are associated with the thoracolumbar region of the spine (back) and about 18% are in the neck alone. The remainder are affected in a combination of both regions.

Common signs include:

  • Back pain: Dogs may exhibit signs of discomfort, sensitivity to touch or hunching of their back. Sometimes neck muscles can be tense also. They may yelp or run backwards when you try to pick them up

  • Loss of coordination: IVDD in dogs can lead to neurological symptoms, causing difficulty in walking, stumbling, unsteadiness or dragging of back legs

  • General weakness or paralysis: Dogs may experience muscle weakness or in severe cases, complete paralysis in the hind limbs

  • Paw knuckling: Knuckling is where your dog’s paw bends under, causing them to walk on
    their knuckles or the tops of their paws, instead of their pads. If your dog has IVDD they might start knuckling on their back paws or all four paws
"Teddy had IVDD Stage 5"

"Teddy had IVDD Stage 5"

She is 10 weeks post op having physio and hydro once a week. She has gone from nothing happening in the rear to fully barring weight and can take short burst of steps. Teddy uses a rear paw anti-knuckling brace to help with his rehabilitation

Maximus PawsUp
  • Reduced mobility: Dogs may seem reluctant to move, jump or climb the stairs. This can be gradual or sudden. You may notice they go to their food or water bowls, but then look at them, rather than eating or drinking. If you then bring the bowl up to their mouth, they’ll eat or drink from that position.

  • Loss of bladder and/or bowels: Sometimes, due to paralysis, there’s a loss of bowel and/or bladder control, or it may just be that your dog has difficulty maintaining their posture while urinating/defecating.

  • Anxious behaviour: Your dog may just display general anxious behaviour, such as shivering or panting. This is often a way of displaying pain/discomfort. If your dog’s in pain, they may snap or growl at you, even if normally a calm and even-tempered dog.

As always, if you suspect your dog may have IVDD, it is important to consult with your vet for a proper diagnosis. Your vet will perform a physical examination and may recommend further diagnostic tests, to assess the condition of the intervertebral discs and spinal cord. The sooner IVDD is diagnosed and treated, the better the chance of recovery is. A delay in treatment IVDD in your dog can results in permanent damage to their spinal cord.

What Causes IVDD in Dogs?

IVDD causes gradual changes to the spinal disks and cord over time and therefore is often developing undetected, until a sudden trigger causes a dog's hardened disc or discs to become ruptured and painful symptoms become obvious.

This trigger can be something as simple and every-day as jumping up onto the sofa. While wear and tear damages the disc over time, a rupture generally occurs suddenly, as the result of a forceful impact (e.g. jumping, landing).

In large-breed dogs, which are more prone to Hansen Type II, such as German Shepherds, Labradors and Dobermans, the discs become hardened over a longer period. This eventually causes bulging or rupturing which results in spinal cord compression, it happens gradually and a specific forceful impact won’t be the cause of damage.

What Can Contribute to IVDD Development:

  • Breed Predisposition: Certain breeds, such as Dachshunds, Corgis, and French Bulldogs, are genetically predisposed to IVDD

  • Age: Older dogs are more prone to disc degeneration or slipped discs in dogs

  • Obesity: Excess weight can strain the spine and increase the risk of disc damage

  • Trauma: Accidents or injuries, even seemingly minor ones, can contribute to disc herniation

  • Genetics: Inherited factors can influence a dog's susceptibility to IVDD

IVDD Stages

IVDD is sometimes graded in terms of severity. In the UK, a grading system of 1-5 is often used - Grade 1 meaning a dog is only mildly affected, whereas Grade 5 the dog is most severely affected.

  • Stage I -  mild pain. Usually self-corrects in a few days. 
  • Stage II -  moderate to severe pain in the neck or lumbar (lower back) area.
  • Stage III - partial paralysis (paresis). Dog walks with staggering or uncoordinated movements.
  • Stage IV - paralysis, but still able to feel.
  • Stage V - paralysis and loss of feeling.

What Breeds Develop IVDD Commonly?

Certain breeds, including Dachshunds, Poodles, Pekingnese, Lhasa Apso, German Shepherds, Doberman and Cocker Spaniels, all seem to be statistically more vulnerable to IVDD than other breeds.

Dogs from breeds that are predisposed to IVDD may suffer from it at a younger age.

However, a dog slipped disc can occur in any breed or age.

IVDD Diagnostic Tests

There are genetic tests available that can predict the risk of disc problems in individual dogs. IVDD is associated with the CFA12 FGF4 mutation. A dog only needs to inherit one copy of this mutation to be at increased risk of developing it. 

Breeders should test in order to breed responsibly.

Dachshunds alone account for 40% to 75% of all cases of IVDD, according to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons.

"Sophie is a 4yr Cockerpoo. She had IVDD surgery last year and now drags her rear legs"

"Sophie is a 4yr Cockerpoo. She had IVDD surgery last year and now drags her rear legs"

She has hypertonic knees and knuckles quite a lot. Her front paws work fine but her rear legs drag. We will use a wheelchair and Maximus PawsUp to keep her active.

Dog wheelchair

How to Help Around the House

IVDD can be both painful and debilitating for your dog. They may find activities such as doing up or down stairs difficult.

If your dog has IVDD it is really important that they DO NOT do any jumping up or down from furniture or standing up on their back legs, this can not only cause pain to your dog but more importantly act as a trigger to cause the rupture of a disk. It is vital that you minimise these activities and instead give them support, such as lifting them onto the sofa for example. If you have steps at home that your dog has to regularly use, consider getting a ramp instead.

Ensure your dog has a comfortable orthopaedic dog bed to rest on, this will give the maximum support to your dog’s spine.

A body harness can help you support your dog on short walks or when toileting.

Weather your dog needs to have an operation or not, a period of strict confinement is usually recommended. Consider teaching your dog some new tricks to stop them getting bored or alternatively a snuffle mat can help keep your dog mentally stimulated. However, be careful they are not becoming too boisterous when playing with this.

"This is Bella she is 4, she is suffering from IVDD we opted for Conservative Management instead of surgery"

"This is Bella she is 4, she is suffering from IVDD we opted for Conservative Management instead of surgery"

She lost the use of back legs & control of toilet but she has now regained partial feeling after 2 months and is using the Wheelchair confidently after a week or so of getting use to around the house.

Dog Wheelchair

How To Prevent IVDD Developing

Preventing Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) in dogs involves a combination of lifestyle management, attentive care, and proactive measures.

  • Maintain a Healthy Weight: Obesity is a significant risk factor for IVDD.

  • Regular Exercise: Encourage regular, low-impact exercise to keep your dog's muscles and joints strong.

  • Breed-Specific Considerations: Be aware of breed predispositions to IVDD. Breeds such as Dachshunds, Corgis, and French Bulldogs are more prone to this condition.
  • Avoid High-Impact Activities: Avoid activities like jumping from heights, playing overactive games of ‘catch’ or engaging in strenuous exercises that may increase the risk of injury.

  • Proper Handling and Lifting: When lifting or handling your dog, especially if it's a small breed or prone to back issues, provide proper support to the spine.

  • Regular Veterinary Check-ups: Schedule regular veterinary check-ups to monitor your dog's overall health. Early detection of potential issues allows for prompt intervention and can prevent the progression of certain conditions.

  • Nutritional Supplements: Consider adding supplements to your dog's diet that promote joint and spinal health. Omega-3 fatty acids and glucosamine/chondroitin supplements may provide benefits.
  • Dental Care: Maintain good oral hygiene. Dental problems can lead to systemic issues, so regular dental check-ups and at-home dental care can contribute to overall well-being.

  • Provide a Comfortable Environment: Create a comfortable and safe living environment for your dog. Provide orthopaedic bedding and ensure that the areas where your dog spends time are free from potential hazards.

  • Regular Grooming: This not only keeps your dog clean but also allows you to check for any lumps, bumps, or abnormalities that may indicate potential issues with the spine or other health concerns.

  • Educate Yourself: Familiarise yourself with the early signs of IVDD in dogs, such as changes in gait, reluctance to move, or signs of pain. Early detection and intervention can significantly impact the outcome.

While these preventive measures can reduce the risk of IVDD, it's essential to note that some factors, such as genetics, are beyond our control. Regular communication with your veterinarian and a proactive approach to your dog's overall health are key components in preventing and managing potential spinal issues.

Treatment for IVDD

Treatment for IVDD should happen as quickly as possible, in order to optimise the best and most successful outcomes for your dog. Treatment options for IVDD depend on the severity of the disease, the level of damage and the specific symptoms your dog has.

Non-Surgical Treatment

In mild cases of IVDD (Stages 1 and 2), conservative (non-surgical) management is likely all that is needed for a good outcome. These measures are often continually re-assessed and updated in response to how your dog is progressing.

Conservative management includes:

  • Restricting movement - This usually means a period of strict confinement, to reduce activity levels. Commonly this involves crate rest for a few weeks followed by very controlled exercise, slowly increasing the amount of movement / exercise your dog can do. A really important point on crate rest is to have the correct sized crate for your dog. It should be substantially bigger than a standard crate that your dog might be put in the travel for example. It must be big enough for your dog to stretch, lie out full length, turn easily etc. Some crates are modular, meaning that you can increase their size as your dog recovers and is able to move more freely. Dedicated to Dachshunds with IVDD  is an wonderful charity which loans out recovery equipment for dachshunds in the UK

  • Medications – Anti-inflammatories, pain killers and/or muscles relaxants will often be prescribed for your dog by your vet

  • Rehab – A rehab plan will be carefully devised by either your vet or a specialist physiotherapist for your individual dog. Rehab will most likely use a combination of exercises and therapies aimed at improving your dog’s co-ordination, balance, strength and flexibility. It will usually use a combination of physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, laser therapy as well as muscle or joint stimulation and manipulation

  • Weight management - Preventing your dog from being too overweight is also very
    helpful as excess weight puts added strain on their spine and vertebrae

  • Back Brace - Dog back braces can play a vital role in providing support and stability to the spine during the healing process. These braces are designed to restrict certain movements, preventing further damage to the spinal cord and supporting your dog's mobility. Each case of IVDD is different however so check with your vet’s before using a brace on your dog.

Surgical treatment

In more severe cases (Stages 3 to 5), where your dog has a degree of paralysis, surgery to the herniation is often needed.

  • Fenestration surgery: the soft disc material is removed to stop it pressing on the spinal cord. It also prevents further protrusions. Recovery from this surgery is prolonged if there’s been severe spinal cord compression. There may be residual neurological deficits.
  • Decompression surgery: This is usually an emergency surgery to decompress the spinal cord and remove the herniated disc material. It’s a more complex procedure than fenestration surgery. It’s achieved by removing a portion of the vertebrae over the affected part of the spinal cord - called a laminectomy. The sooner this is done, the less chance of irreversible neurological damage occurring.

Surgery usually takes between 1 and 3 hours.

Post-operatively, your dog’s management is likely to be very similar to that of mild cases, involving strict confinement, painkillers and rehab to aid spine healing. It is also very important to try and mitigate any further episodes from happening, so careful ongoing care and management is vital.

Sadly, in some cases paralysis or partial paralysis is unavoidable, even where surgery has occurred. Where this is the case, a wheelchair can be lifechanging, enabling your dog to still enjoy an active life, despite reduced function of their hind legs. A wheelchair can also be a very helpful rehabilitation tool, meaning your dog can start to regain strength in their back legs while still being supported.

Conclusion

IVDD in dogs can be a challenging condition but it is not a death sentence for your dog. Nevertheless, it is important that you act quickly, as it is only with prompt diagnosis and treatment that outcomes can improve. Supportive care is vital and this should be discussed with your vet and tailored to your individual dog.

If your dog has IVDD, one very useful resource is the Dachshund IVDD UK website. Although this website is specifically aimed at Dachshunds with IVDD, it has a lot of very useful advice which is not breed specific, such as top ten question to ask our vet if IVDD is suspected as well as treatment options, expected costs and the most up to date research.

Dog IVDD or Slipped Discs in Dogs - Causes, Prevention and How to Help

Read Further about IVDD in Dogs

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