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Intervertebral Disc Disease in dogs

The essentials

  • There are two types of intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) — With IVDD in dogs, there is the sudden onset type, known as Hansen Type I, and the slower progression type, known as Hansen Type II.
  • Some dog breeds are more prone to developing IVDD than others — Dog breeds with long backs and short legs have a higher incidence of intervertebral disc disease.
  • Dogs with IVDD can make a full or near-full recovery — Dogs with less severe cases that are caught and treated early can still live full and active lives.

What is intervertebral disc disease in dogs?

Between each of the vertebrae of your dog’s spine is a gelatinous substance. This substance makes up the intervertebral disc, and it functions as a shock absorber in healthy dogs. When intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is present, these protective discs herniate, causing bulging, spinal cord compression, and severe pain.

Over the course of this degenerative condition, the substance can harden, or calcify, and put stress on your dog’s nerve impulses. This stress, or pressure, is what causes symptoms of IVDD to begin showing. The types of symptoms can be your first clue as to where the affected discs are.

Types and causes of IVDD in dogs

There are two types of IVDD in dogs: Hansen Type I and Hansen Type II.

Hansen Type I

Hansen Type I typically seen in dogs bred for certain physical features. Dogs with long backs and short legs and miniature versions of larger breeds are more susceptible to this type of IVDD.

Examples of dog breeds in this category are dachshunds, Shih Tzu, French bulldogs, basset hounds, and Pekingese. The structure of these breeds makes their spinal cords more susceptible to injuries. For these dogs, disc herniation can happen suddenly during jumping or landing, leading to IVDD.

Hansen Type II

Hansen Type II affects larger breeds of dogs. Onset for this type is usually slower, happening over a long period of time as the discs rupture, bulge, and deteriorate. Dog breeds most commonly affected by Hansen Type II IVDD include Labrador retrievers, Doberman pinschers, and German shepherds.

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Symptoms of IVDD

Just like the human spine, a dog’s spine has three distinct sections: cervical (neck), thoracic (back), and lumbar (low back). Symptoms and treatment for IVDD depend on which type of IVDD your dog has and which part of the spinal cord is affected.

Neck intervertebral disc disease (cervical IVDD)

If your dog is suffering from IVDD in the neck, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • Unsteadiness
  • Inability to hold up their head
  • Shivering or crying
  • Reluctance or inability to move
  • Inability to stand or support their own weight
  • No response to touching their feet

Back intervertebral disc disease (thoracolumbar IVDD)

IVDD that starts in the back can have similar symptoms as above. You might also notice:

  • Spasms that cause tenseness in the muscles, including in the belly
  • Weakness in or dragging of their rear legs
  • Back legs cross when they walk
  • No response to touching their rear legs

Low-back intervertebral disc disease (lumbarsacro IVDD)

For dogs with low-back IVDD, the following symptoms may be present:

  • Difficulty jumping, with or without pain
  • Soft or sluggish tail
  • Inability to hold in urine or feces
  • Enlarged rectum

🚨 Incontinence, loss of sensation, and paralysis are severe symptoms. Seek immediate medical attention for your dog as soon as you notice these.

How is IVDD diagnosed?

The earlier you can get your dog to the vet after you first notice any of the above symptoms, the better the outcome will be. Diagnosis begins with a physical exam where your vet will feel around the spine for any noticeable lumps, bumps, or painful areas.

An official diagnosis of IVDD will come after your dog has diagnostic imaging tests. X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, and neurological exams will be used to determine the location and severity of intervertebral disc disease if it is present.

Treatment for IVDD in dogs

Early diagnosis and treatment are key for helping your dog recover. Depending on the severity of the case, your vet will prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs, strict crate rest, physical therapy, surgery or a combination of these treatments. 

  • Steroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Intervertebral disc disease can cause bulging and swelling in the space between the vertebrae. Your vet may prescribe drugs that manage that inflammation and help your pup feel less discomfort.
  • Crate rest. It’s a tall ask for energetic dogs, but crate rest is important for allowing their bodies to heal. Your vet may prescribe a mild sedative or supplement to help a high-energy dog relax enough to start the healing process. To be truly effective, your dog may need to spend several weeks on crate rest.
  • Physical therapy.Regardless of the onset — sudden or slow — physical therapy may be prescribed for dogs that need to learn to move properly again and restore muscle strength so they are less likely to reinjure themselves.
  • Surgery. IVDD is graded on a scale of one to five. When caught early and in its early stages, surgery can be avoided. IVDD that is rated a five, however, will often require corrective surgery. Following surgery, your vet may prescribe a combination of anti-inflammatory drugs, crate rest, and physical therapy.

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Treatment options for IVDD vary based on the dog and the severity of the disease. Foods such as ZipZyme™ Omega, with its anti-inflammatory healing properties, may provide enhanced physical support for dogs in addition to traditional treatment methods. The DHA provided by ZipZyme™ reduces inflammation and pain associated with that inflammation and may help your dog regain any lost agility and mobility.

Frequently asked questions

How do you fix intervertebral disc disease in dogs?

Even in its early stages, surgery is highly recommended for dogs with IVDD. Mild cases may do well with medications, crate rest, and physical therapy, but a full recovery is less possible.The goal of surgical treatment is to remove the hardened disc material and relieve pressure on the spinal nerves. They may also treat any other affected areas that didn’t come up in the diagnostic imaging tests to prevent future disease.

Can dogs recover from intervertebral disc disease?

The recovery outlook for dogs with IVDD is very good. Dogs with cases that are caught early can expect to make a full recovery with treatment and/or physical rehabilitation. Annual physical exams with your vet are a good way to check for early clinical signs. They may even prevent the need for surgery down the road.

What is the survival rate of IVDD in dogs?

Intervertebral disc disease, though painful and limiting, isn’t a fatal condition. The survival rate for dogs with IVDD is 100%.

What is the cost of intervertebral disc disease surgery on dogs?

Unfortunately, the cost of surgery for dogs with IVDD can be quite high. And it’s not just the cost of the surgery itself, which can be anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000. Don’t forget that you’ll also have to pay for diagnostic tests, medications, and any pre- or post-operative care. All of this puts totals in the range of $3,000 to $8,000.

If you have a dog breed that is more susceptible to IVDD, you may want to invest money into a pet savings account. You can also look into pet insurance plans to alleviate the financial burden. Some companies even offer this as a benefit for their employees.

What are the signs of IVDD in dogs?

Depending on where the spine is affected, your dog may show clinical symptoms like unsteadiness, shivering or crying, crossing their back legs when they walk or not being able to walk at all, spasms, tensing of the belly, holding their head low, or a limp tail. If you notice that your dog is suddenly unable to hold their bladder, doesn’t react when you touch their legs or feet, or they’ve become paralyzed, seek immediate medical attention.