For all their running, jumping and rolling around, it’s no surprise that dogs are susceptible to back problems. But one problem in particular, called intervertebral disc disease, has the ability to completely alter the way your pup moves. For this reason, fast treatment is crucial.
Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), also referred to as degenerative disc disease, is very similar in dogs as it is in humans. This disorder occurs when your dog’s intervertebral discs—the cushiony discs that sits between each vertebra on their spine—begin to wear down and become weak.
Each rounded disc is made of a tough, fibrous exterior and has a gel-like substance in the center. This structure helps absorb shock between the vertebrae, so your dog’s bones don’t grind together as they move.
If these discs succumb to wear and tear, they might begin to bulge or even rupture near the spinal cord, causing what is called a herniated or “slipped” disc. If this happens, the disc might interfere with the nerves leading to your dog’s limbs, causing mobility problems and pain.
Bulging discs might push in toward the spinal column and compress the spinal cord or one or more nerves leading to various parts of your dog’s body. Compression interrupts the signals being sent to areas like the neck, shoulders, legs, back, bladder and bowels. Ruptured discs might do even more to the nerves, potentially causing irreversible damage.
What causes IVDD?
A few types of dogs are particularly susceptible to IVDD. Many of these are small-breed dogs with long backs and short legs, like Dachshunds, Corgis and Bassett Hounds. However, larger breeds like German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers also experience this problem.
IVDD might be caused by a few things. One cause commonly found in smaller dogs is the rapid calcification, or hardening, of the disc’s outer layer as the disc loses water. This makes the disc more brittle and easier to damage, so even a common movement can cause the disc to rupture under pressure.
In larger dogs, a more gradual type of IVDD is most common. In this case, discs become damaged due to everyday wear and tear—the pressure put on them after years of your dog running and playing. The discs harden over time, becoming more damaged, and ultimately may bulge or rupture.
How to spot IVDD in dogs
The symptoms of IVDD can vary dramatically in dogs based on the particular type of disease, how severe the bulge or rupture is and where it is located in the spine. Some dogs will only experience minor pain and weakness, while others may suffer from total paralysis.
Symptoms can include:
- Leg pain
- Leg weakness/wobbliness
- Partial loss of leg function
- Dragging rear legs
- Arched back
- Back muscle spasms
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
Unfortunately, your dog won’t be able to tell you that their legs feel weak or numb. Instead, you’ll need to pick up on these things based on their behavior.
Usually, leg numbness, weakness or pain will cause your pet to walk awkwardly, appear to have a limp or make their legs give out unexpectedly. They might also be unwilling or unable to jump and play like normal. Additionally, pets experiencing weakness or pain might be more lethargic than usual or act aggressively if you try to touch their legs or back.
Managing IVDD in dogs
If you notice that your dog is experiencing leg pain or has trouble walking, you’ll want to take them to the vet as soon as possible. A few tests and scans will be necessary to identify the source of the problem, including X-rays and an MRI or CT scan. From there, your vet can determine if your dog has suffered from a herniated disc and where it’s located in the spine.
Treating IVDD largely depends on the severity of the disc injury. Many mild cases are treated at home. Your pup will likely be prescribed pain medication to make them more comfortable, and their movement will need to be restricted as much as possible. Typically, this means they’ll need to be kenneled and only taken outside to use the bathroom for a few weeks while their spine has a chance to heal. Most dogs on this treatment plan make a full recovery.
In more severe cases, your dog might require surgery to alleviate the compression of the spinal cord. Unfortunately, not all dogs will recover the ability to walk after surgery and may require a back brace or doggy wheelchair.
Sadly, IVDD cannot be fully prevented. Watching your pup’s weight to reduce stress on their back and minimizing their jumping may improve their disc health, but it will not completely remove their risk. What’s most important is that you keep an eye out for the signs of IVDD and seek treatment as soon as possible to improve your pet’s chances of healing and recovery.