Are some dog breeds prone to IVDD?

Absolutely. There is a long list, unfortunately, of dogs that are prone to IVDD. The most common ones we consider are chondrodystrophic dogs, which are dogs with long backs and short legs. You can think about your doxins, chihuahuas, and French bulldogs on that list, which is growing ever more popular. In addition to that, we tend to see a lot of cocker spaniels, and even beagles are on that list. So there are quite a few breeds that are prone to IVDD.

Hilary Levitin, DVM, DACVIM (Neurology)
Central Texas Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Hospital

What are the signs and symptoms of spinal disc problems in dogs?

In dogs that have IVDD or herniated discs, the concerns will truly depend on where that herniated disc is. So if a dog has a slipped or herniated disc in their neck, they can have symptoms ranging anywhere from really severe neck pain to the point where they don't want to move their head and neck. Instead, they follow you with their eyeballs instead of moving their head and neck. We can see them keeping really low to the ground but still reluctantly trying to move. Other times, they can have neck pain but also weakness and wobbliness in all four legs, where they are stumbling and having difficulty moving forward. We can also see changes to their spinal cord reflexes, which you won't be able to see at home, but we will look for them here in a hospital.

Alternatively, if we have a pet with a disc issue lowered down in their spine, so a slipped disc in the middle or lower back, you'll see problems really affecting just the back legs. They may have more of a hunched-back posture to their spine because their spine hurts. They will be really sloppy in how they move the back leg. So you'll see weakness, wobbliness, and even knuckling of the paws in the back end. Again, when we evaluate them, we might also see changes to their spinal cord reflexes, and they can be uncomfortable when we put pressure on their spine, which we never recommend you do at home. Signs you might see that look like pain are hunched back, reluctance to move forward despite their ability to still move their legs, or even things like not wanting to eat, just acting off. We can all act differently when we're in pain, and dogs are the same.

How is IVDD in dogs diagnosed?

To make a diagnosis of IVDD in dogs, there are several different imaging modalities that you can use. Ideally, the gold standard is an MRI because that gives you the best images of the spinal cord, the intervertebral disc, and all of the surrounding structures. But there are some breeds and specific circumstances that might make other imaging tools useful as well. When symptoms are first on set, looking at a radiograph or an x-ray can help you ensure that you don't see any fractures or other instability of the spine. You can also look to see if perhaps there is mineralization of the disc, meaning that that is a disc that could actually rupture out of place. Maybe it's not that one, but maybe it's lower down, or the inner vertebral disc space itself where that disc should sit is more narrow, which can be suggestive of disc disease.

Again, it can't tell you exactly where the problem is, but in a young chondrodystrophic, short-legged, long-backed dog, sometimes we can get the diagnosis we need from a CT scan. A CT scan is different from an MRI because it is good at looking at the bone. In breeds of dogs that like to slip boney discs out of place, it's a really nice tool that's a bit faster than an MRI to get that answer. As you can tell, there are many different tests we can do to help us pick the best treatment option, and the test that we do depends on your dog and the story that you describe at home as to how this happened so that we can pick the best test so that we can find you the best treatment option as well and not have to do multiple.

What are the treatment options for dogs with IVDD?

Treatment options for dogs with IVDD depend on the severity of the symptoms. If we do have a dog that is still walking, maybe is a little bit painful but hasn't seen medications yet, conservative management with anti-inflammatories, pain medication, and a very strict period of rest to allow the spine some time to heal can be effective. They've done more recent studies showing that that is more effective than we thought it once was. So anywhere between 70 and 75% of dogs can get better with that type of conservative management, but that only applies to dogs that can still be up and walking. If you have a pet that is not walking at all, no matter what their degree of pain is, a surgical procedure is nine times out of 10 times warranted.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. We don't like to talk hard and fast, but if your dog is not walking, we will likely recommend a surgical procedure, where we go in and very gently move away the structures on top of the spine so that we can drill away the bone of the spine and see where the spinal cord sits. Typically, we look in there, and we see all the gunk that's slipped out of place, all that nasty disc material, and we want to remove all of it so that we can see the spinal cord sitting nice and flat instead of being pushed away from us. That is the procedure we tend to do in dogs that cannot walk that we would likely talk to you about. We will use our imaging tools to help us know if that will come with the high success rate that we want or if there are some reservations because of the degree of spinal cord injury that has been incurred. So we will always talk you through step-by-step what makes the most sense and not just look at your pet as a statistic.

What are good exercises for dogs with IVDD?

If you have a pet with IVDD, there are some safe rehabilitation exercises that you can perform. More often than not, we will recommend a strict period of limited activity for at least two to four weeks. That might not need to be in a kennel if your dog is very anxious in a kennel, but think about a small exercise pen or a pack-and-play if you have a tinier dog, for example. Outside of that period of confinement, we can still go on less than five-minute leash walks with support if needed to make sure we're still moving those legs.

We can also do things like passive range of motion in the back legs, where we do little bicycles, and assisted standing exercises, where we allow the pet to stand for as long as they can and let them fall to sitting just when they're ready, and then pop them back up. So some exercises like these have a very low impact on your pet, but I would not recommend doing any of these exercises without consulting with your primary care provider, a rehabilitation specialist, or a neurologist to make sure that these exercises are safe to perform on your pet and that they're ready to perform those exercises. We always want to start more on the ground floor, just like if you or I were in rehabilitation therapy for a spine injury. We really want to taper those exercises and tailor them to your pet's needs as opposed to giving a blanket list of exercises.

If you are concerned that your pet might be affected by a disc issue or any spinal cord issue, for that matter, please seek out the guidance of your veterinarian, and they will be able to work with you. Thank you so much for listening to this short snippet about IVDD in dogs. This is not an exhaustive lecture on the topic, we could talk for hours, but hopefully, this answers some of your more frequently asked questions. If you think that your pet is affected by spinal cord disease, whether it's in their neck or their back, please make an appointment with your primary care provider. They can triage the situation, look at your pet, see what is most likely and least likely, and let you know if a referral to a neurologist is warranted. If referral to a neurologist is something that is not feasible because of your distance from us or many different factors, your veterinarian is always welcome to call and consult with us by phone. That way, you can still have our input in the background for any conditions affecting your dog. Thank you again, and have a lovely day.

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