Intervertebral Disc Disease: Always an Emergency in Dogs

Side view of female Dog X-RayYour Dachshund, Peanut, is doing just fine when you let her out the back door to go potty. When she comes back in, however, you notice that her left rear leg is dragging behind her and she seems to be a bit unstable in behind. Did Peanut step in hole? Did something bite her? Is the leg broken? Does she need to be seen right away?

While there are other things that could cause Peanut’s symptoms, one of the first things that needs to be ruled out is intervertebral disc disease, or IVDD. If IVDD is the culprit, it is important to have it evaluated and treated appropriately as soon as possible to ensure the best outcome. Keep reading to learn all you need to know about intervertebral disc disease in dogs.

What is Intervertebral Disc Disease?

The spinal column is made up of a series of bony vertebrae that stack end to end like train cars. In between each vertebrae is a squishy, shock absorbing disc. The disc lies underneath the actual spinal cord, which lies protected inside of the vertebrae.

Each intervertebral disc has two parts: a thick, fibrous outer ring and a gel-like inner. Over the course of time, these discs begin to degenerate. Most times this degeneration is a normal aging change and does not result in any ill effects.

Other dogs are not so lucky. As the disc breaks down, sometimes the outer thick fibers weaken enough for the inner gel portion 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 process can happen in any dog, however some breeds are more likely to develop a problem. These include longer backed dogs and chondrodystrophic (dogs with dwarf characteristics) breeds such as:

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

In these breeds disc degeneration can start to be detected in the first year or two of life.

Signs of IVDD

Symptoms of intervertebral disc disease can vary somewhat depending on where the compression is and how much pressure is being placed on the nerves a spinal cord. Some common symptoms, however, can include:

  • Pain when being picked up
  • Tensing of the back or neck
  • 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 onset of signs, the more important it becomes to seek emergency veterinary care.

Managing IVDD in Dogs

When intervertebral disc disease is suspected, an accurate diagnosis is important. Sometimes this can be obtained through a good physical examination, however other times more advanced diagnostic imaging is required. Tools such as radiographs, MRI, and CT scans can help us to obtain more information about the nature of the problem and its location, especially if surgery is 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. Dogs undergoing medical treatment 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 in the course of events that the dog can be treated, the better the prognosis often is. Surgery is aimed at procedures designed to remove pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots and removed any displaced disc material. These types of neurologic surgeries require special training as possessed by our expert surgery team.

Intervertebral disc disease can be a serious and sometimes very scary problem. There are many factors that go into managing a dog with IVDD, however it is clear that dogs showing symptoms of this disease need medical attention as soon as possible. That is why Animal Internal Medicine and Specialty Services is here for you and your pets when you need us so that we can get to helping your pet right away.

posted in:  Pet Safety