The backbone of a dog, just like a human, consists of a series of small bones called vertebrae that are separated by “cushions” of tissue called intervertebral discs. These discs are made up of a tough, fibrous outer layer and a gel-like inner substance, and serve to pad the joints between the vertebrae. When problems relating to degeneration of the discs occur, it is called Intervertebral Disc Disease, or IVDD. This can be a very painful and alarming condition in your pet.
In IVDD, the disc becomes displaced from its normal location and puts pressure on the many nerves of the spinal cord. Sometimes, the disc remains intact and simply bulges out of its proper place; other times, the outer fibrous layer ruptures and the gel-like center spills out. Either way, the disc material compresses and interferes with the spinal nerves. IVDD can affect discs in various parts of the spine, including the neck, middle, or lower back. Symptoms will vary somewhat depending on the location of the affected disc, but usually the first symptom is pain. Signs of back or neck-related pain in your dog may include a reluctance to go up and down stairs or jump on and off of things, reluctance to walk, tenseness, or vocalizing/yelping painfully. Depending on the location and severity of the disc disease, some animals may show neurologic changes, such as tripping, stumbling, or wobbling when walking, weakness or paralysis in the hind legs, or even loss of bladder and bowel control. These symptoms may appear slowly over time, or suddenly, with no apparent injury or triggering event.
The first step in diagnosing IVDD is a thorough physical exam by your veterinarian. He or she can narrow down the source of your dog's pain, and may order x-rays in order to rule out any other spinal problems, such as fractures of the vertebrae. If IVDD is present, your veterinarian will help you understand the best options for your dog's specific case. Sometimes, IVDD episodes can resolve with medical treatment, but this is not the right choice for every case. Some dogs may need surgery urgently to remove the displaced disc material, while others may only require surgery if other treatments fail to relieve their symptoms. Medical treatment, if appropriate, usually consists of medications to reduce inflammation (such as steroids or NSAIDs – non-steroidal anti inflammatories) and pain relieving medications, possibly alongside muscle relaxers. Surgical techniques vary based on the exact location and type of disc displacement, but they involve physical removal of the material compressing the nerves. Surgery requires a detailed image of the damaged disc beforehand, usually obtained by an MRI.
A regimen of very strict rest is vitally important to the success of either medical or surgical treatment for IVDD. Dogs recovering from IVDD should be confined for a minimum of 3-4 weeks, and possibly longer if symptoms are persistent or surgery has been performed. This means absolutely no running, jumping, stairs, or vigorous activity of any kind, and no excessive walking either inside or outside the house. When your dog goes outside to potty, he or she should be on a leash in your yard, and not permitted to ramble. Indoors, the best option is to confine your dog to a crate. This gives him or her a safe and comfortable area to relax where you know he or she cannot run, jump, or get into trouble when you're not paying attention! Crate training at an early age is extremely helpful in the event of any unexpected surgery or illness, because it means your dog will have a comfortable, low-stress recovery in a familiar setting.
IVDD can occur in any breed of dog, especially in older animals, due to natural disc degeneration. However, certain breeds of dog are more predisposed to develop IVDD due to a genetic form of dwarfism called Chondrodystrophy. This is what gives breeds like Dachshunds, Corgis, and Basset Hounds their characteristic long, low appearance. It also can contribute to weakening of the intervertebral discs. Other chondrodystrophoid breeds that are particularly susceptible to IVDD include the Beagle, Cocker Spaniel, Shih Tzu, Pekingese, and Lhasa Apso.
If you have any questions regarding IVDD, please contact us Eagle Animal Hospital. We serve Chester Springs, Downingtown, Exton, Glenmoore and the surrounding area.
Written by Christina Gerling, Veterinary Technician