Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) is very common in dogs in Australia and especially prevalent in some breeds (most famously the gorgeous Dachshunds). Get proactive to keep your mates back healthy and know what signs to be aware of in the unhappy case your mate is affected by IVDD. The sooner veterinary help is sought, the better the outcome for your bud.
What is IVDD?
A dog’s spine is comprised of many bones (vertebrae) which house the spinal cord. Between each of the vertebrae there is a disc that sits between them (hence the word: intervertebral disc) to provide cushioning and protection for the spine.
In some dogs these discs degenerate and can herniate, slip or bulge out of their usual position between the vertebrae to press on the spinal cord.
What are the signs of IVDD?
When this disc herniates from its normal position, dogs can show a wide variety of signs. It depends on where on the spinal cord the problem is located (from their neck to their hips) and also how severely the disc has herniated and is pressing on the spinal cord. Essentially it’s the pressure on the spinal cord that causes pain, and an interference of nerve function. Signs you may see include:
- Reluctance to jump
- Unwillingness to turn their neck or reach down to a bowl
- Reduced appetite
- Reduced activity level
- Hunched back
- Legs: weakness or paralysis of any- or all, of the legs. They may be able to walk but drag their leg/s abnormally.
- Bladder: anything from incontinence and dribbling to an overly full, hard bladder.
- Bowel: from faecal incontinence to constipation.
How does IVDD happen?
There are usually 2 scenarios:
- Discs that degenerate from a YOUNG age: These discs have started to degenerate and change in structure from very early in the dog’s life, (as early as 6 months of age), to become harder (calcified) and as a result, when exposed to a forceful action, (jumping out of the car, off the couch etc. etc.), it busts out and presses on the spinal cord. This presents as an acute problem. This is the more common scenario with genetically predisposed breeds such as Dachshunds, Poodles, Shih Tzus, Beagles etc.
- Discs that degenerate with OLD age: These discs have slowly changed and degenerated in structure over a long period of time, and bust out into the spinal cord themselves, chronically, no impact needed. This can be seen in any older dog, mainly large breeds, such as German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Labradors etc.
How is disc disease diagnosed by my vet?
- Presence of some of the above signs, and
- Hands on examination findings from your Veterinarian suggestive of disc disease.
From here, further tests are required to get a definitive diagnosis…
- Radiographs: It usually starts with radiographs of the spine, (note: this doesn’t show up the spinal cord but it gives other indicators that the back isn’t happy- such as reduced size between some vertebrae due to the fact the disc has moved or that the disc/s are calcified).
From here, if indicated, tests that do show the spinal cord are needed- this can be done with
- Myelography (a dye injected into the fluid surrounding the spine), and
- Advanced imaging such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
How is it best treated?
Best recommendation for treatment of a dog with disc disease does vary on the severity of the disc compression of the spinal cord. The good news with IVDD is that although its treatment is intensive, it can be done with great success.
- Conservative/ Medical Management: Many cases can improve without surgery (see indications for surgery below). This method includes strict confinement (movement is limited so healing can take place), pain relief, monitoring and managing peeing and pooping, and adjunctive treatments such as acupuncture and gentle physiotherapy. This is usually anywhere between 3 weeks and 2 months.
- Surgical Management: This involves surgery by a specialist surgeon to remove the part of the disc that is compressing the spinal cord. Strict rest and intensive nursing care is also required for weeks after surgery.
According to the Veterinary Specialist Centre in North Ryde Indications for surgery for IVDD are:
- The patient is suffering recurrent pain or pain that is difficult to manage.
- The patient has a spinal cord injury that’s resulting in problems walking, particularly if the condition is progressive.
- The patient has lost the ability to walk and/or is incontinent.
Can I prevent IVDD in my dog?
The truth is, that if genetically predisposed to have disc problems, even when you’re doing all the ‘right things’ for your fur kid, disc herniation can just happen and there is no known way/s that can prevent it happening all together.
That said though, there are things you should do to best care for your fur babies back, which may help with prevention:
- Keep Them at a Healthy Weight. Keeping or getting them to their ideal body condition to avoid unnecessary strain on the back.
- Be Fit and Active. Sitting around and being inactive won’t stop the risk of disc disease, it will actually increase the risk if they are predisposed to it.
- Avoid or Limit High Impact activity. Consider furniture to aid stepping down from couches and beds to reduce the load through the spine with a big jump. Use ramps as an alternative to jumping from the car, back yard etc.
- Use a harness instead of a collar. This avoids strain on the neck, especially in dogs that pull at the leash.
As there is a genetic component to IVDD, it’s also not recommended to breed with dogs that have had it.