Disc disease in dogs.

It is a pretty scary feeling when one moment you are letting your dog outside to go potty and the next minute they can’t walk normally. What happened? Did something attack your pet? Did they somehow break their leg? Is it an emergency?

While many things can affect a dog’s ability to use its legs, one of the first diagnoses  that needs to be ruled out is intervertebral disc disease, or IVDD. When IVDD affects a pet, it is important for it to be treated as soon as possible to ensure the best outcome. It can cause some pretty intense back pain, decreased function, and even potential paralysis. Keep reading to learn all you need to know about disc problems in dogs.

Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs

The spinal column is made up of a series of thirty or more (depending on tail length) bony vertebrae that stack end-to-end. Between each vertebrae is a shock absorbing disc. The disc is positioned underneath the actual spinal cord, which lies protected inside of the vertebrae.

Each intervertebral disc has two parts: a thick, fibrous outer ring called the annulus fibrosus, and a gel-like inner portion called the nucleus pulposus. Over the course of time, these discs often begin to degenerate. Most of the time this degeneration is considered a normal aging change and does not result in any trouble.

Other times, though, this process can be bad news. As the disc breaks down, the outer thick fibers of the annulus can weaken enough for the inner gel to slip out. This can stimulate pain receptors, put pressure on various nerves leaving the spinal cord, and, if severe enough, even put pressure on the actual spinal cord. 

This can happen in any dog, however disc problems in dogs are more likely in some breeds. These include dogs with long backs as well as chondrodystrophic breeds bred for dwarf-like tendencies that affect cartilage development such as:

  • Dachshunds
  • Pekingese
  • English bulldogs
  • Beagles
  • Lhasa Apsos
  • Shih Tzus
  • Cocker Spaniels
  • Basset Hounds
  • Corgis

In these breeds disc degeneration can often start to be detected in the first two years  of life. Pets who are overweight are also predisposed. 

Signs of IVDD

Symptoms of intervertebral disc disease in dogs can vary depending on where the compression is within the spinal column and how much pressure is being exerted on the nerves or spinal cord itself.

Disc disease in dogs often presents as one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Tense back or neck
  • Back pain
  • Reluctance to lift or lower head
  • Reluctance to use stairs or jump
  • Tripping or stumbling
  • Knuckling over one or more paws
  • Difficulty walking
  • Paralysis of one or more limbs
  • Loss of control of bowels or bladder

The more severe and sudden the symptoms, the more urgent the situation. Contact us right away if you think that your pet may be affected by IVDD. Disc disease in dogs can be an emergency situation and quick action can make a big difference in outcome. 

Treating Disc Problems in Dogs

When IVDD happens, making a diagnosis is important. There are other conditions that might appear similarly, and treatment is most successful when we are addressing the correct problem.

Sometimes intervertebral disc disease in dogs can be diagnosed during a good physical examination, however other times diagnostic imaging is required. Tools such as radiographs (X-rays), MRI, and CT scans can help to obtain more information about the nature of the problem and its location, especially in more severe cases where surgery may be warranted.

In mild cases of IVDD where there is only pain or very minimal other symptoms, medical treatment alone may be an option. Rest and medications allow the body time to heal on its own. Other treatments like laser therapy can also be helpful. Dogs who are being medically managed for IVDD must be closely monitored for signs of worsening.

When a pet has more severe or worsening IVDD symptoms, often surgery is the best option. The sooner that the dog can be treated, the better the prognosis often is. 

Surgical treatments for disc disease in dogs remove pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots as well as removing any fragments of displaced disc material. This is a specialty surgery usually performed by a board certified veterinary surgeon or neurologist. 

Intervertebral disc disease in dogs can be a serious and scary problem. There are many factors that go into managing a patient with IVDD, however it is clear that dogs showing symptoms of this disease need medical attention as soon as possible. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Back pain in dogs can be a big deal!