Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) may be one of the less common ailments that affects the average dog, but it’s common enough (especially for certain breeds) that it’s helpful for every pup owner to be aware of its symptoms.
Read on to learn more about IVDD, what its symptoms are, and what you and your vet can do to treat it.
What is IVDD?
IVDD is a condition that impacts the discs between the vertebrae that protect your pup’s spinal cord.
“Vertebrae are the backbones of the spine, running from the skull down to the pelvis,” explains Jo Myers, DVM. “They protect the spinal cord by providing it with a solid bony tunnel to pass through and allow for tremendous range of motion and strength. The joints between individual vertebra—dogs have 30 total if you don't count the bones of the tail—are padded with a tough, fibrous shock absorber called a vertebral disc. IVDD refers broadly to what happens when those discs deteriorate, rupture, or slip.”
Having trouble visualizing these discs? Dr. Myers compares these discs to “a cookie shoved in between each backbone, specifically something like a Peanut Butter Patty Girl Scout Cookie, where it's hard all around the outside but has a creamy center.”
There are two different types of IVDD. The first is a Type I rupture of the disc, where the soft center breaks out of its casing and puts pressure on the spinal cord. Type I IVDD is common in younger dogs, especially dogs shaped like corgis or dachshunds.
Type II IVDD occurs when the hard outer part of the disc softens, usually due to age. In this case, the entire intact disc puts pressure on the spinal cord.
In both cases, however, the end result—excess pressure on the spinal cord—is the same.
What are the signs of IVDD?
IVDD symptoms can be similar to the symptoms of a spinal cord injury from a major accident and can include pain, weakness, loss of coordination, loss of function, loss of sensation, and paralysis.
“The symptoms of IVDD can vary in severity and usually progress in order depending on how severe the compression of the spinal cord is,” explains Dr. Myers. “In early stages when the spinal cord is only being a little bit squished, only the nerves that run along the outer surface of the spinal cord are affected. As a result, you might see nothing more than pain at the site.”
In milder cases, your pup also might become more reluctant to move around or, if their neck is affected, have trouble moving their head from side to side. In more severe cases, however, the nerves in the spine that communicate with the brain stop working well. If this happens, your dog will lose coordination and will have difficulty walking normally. And as IVDD worsens, your dog may experience paralysis.
What are the causes of IVDD?
Certain breeds are more prone to IVDD than others. Dogs with long backs and short legs like Dachshunds and Corgis are at high risk, as well as German Shepherds, whose sloped hind quarters make them susceptible to Type II IVDD.
“A sudden injury can also cause IVDD,” says Dr. Myers. “Going down stairs or jumping down off furniture are examples of the type of activities that put the greatest amount of force on the weakest parts of the backbone.”
Dogs that are overweight are also more prone to disc disease, since the wear and tear on the spine for those pups is greater.
Treatment options for IVDD
Your vet can treat your dog’s IVDD either medically or surgically, depending on the specifics of your pup’s health and the severity of the IVDD.
If your dog’s IVDD is relatively mild, your vet may recommend approximately three weeks of cage rest for your pup along with a variety of medications to ease their pain and reduce inflammation. Physical therapy is also crucial for non-surgical treatment and can include massaging the affected area regularly.
Surgical treatment is usually only recommended for extreme cases and unfortunately is not guaranteed to reverse a dog’s paralysis or other associated IVDD symptoms.
“There are a variety of different surgical procedures that are done in an effort to relieve the damage caused by IVDD,” says Dr. Myers. “The ultimate goal of all of them is to remove the material that is causing pressure on the spinal cord and hope that the spinal cord can heal and recover, at least a little bit.”
Unfortunately, no treatment for IVDD is guaranteed to work, especially for severe cases of paralysis. Your vet and the experts at Pawp can help you determine the best course of treatment for your dog’s specific needs.