What is Intervertebral Disc Disease?

A condition usually found in smaller dogs because of their genetic disposition to the disease, intervertebral disc disease occurs when a dog’s intervertebral disc (IVD) deteriorates either over time, gradually (normally referred to as “spondylosis”) or because of genetics.

“The intervertebral disc (IVD) is a shock-absorbing and stabilizing structure between the vertebrae (spinal bones),” explains “There is a disc between all vertebrae in the neck, back and tail, except between the first two cervical (neck) vertebrae. Each disc has two components: The outer portion is a thick, interwoven bundle of tough fibrous tissues; the center is a gel-like mix of fluid and cartilage tissue.” further explains that in most dogs suffering from spondylosis, there are normally no signs of pain or weakness. Small breeds that can suffer from this disease because of genetics include Lhasa ApsosShih TzusDachshundsPekingeseBeagles and Cocker Spaniels. These pooches are normally termed “chondrodystrophoid” because they “have been selected for a genetic form of dwarfism.”

These dogs are more prone to degeneration in the discs because of this genetic flaw. The discs can calcify (something that occurs when the gel-like fluid in the disc hardens). So as these dogs age and the normal wear and tear of everyday life takes a toll on their spines, they tend to have a greater risk of developing the symptoms associated with this disease.

What are the Symptoms of Intervertebral Disc Disease?

Intervertebral disc disease can lead to disc rupture. As explains, degenerative disc disease causes the outer shell of the disc to deteriorate and leads the inner, gel-like center to escape. This is termed a “rupture” or a “slipped disc.”

“Because the spinal cord is encased within its bony canal, it cannot move away from the pressure and it becomes ‘pinched,’” describes “Most owners report that a disc rupture occurred following some kind of traumatic event, such as a relatively small jump or fall. Although this act is frequently blamed for the disc rupture, the injury actually occurred due to chronic disc degeneration.”

Ruptures will cause pain for a dog suffering from degenerative disc disease because of the pressure it puts on the spinal cord and spinal nerves. It can also lead to “loss of information transmission causing partial or complete paralysis.”

Degeneration of a disc usually happens over several days or weeks, very slowly. Symptoms that you may see in your dog with this disease, say and, are:

  • Pain (the most common symptom)
  • Reluctance to move or walk
  • Reluctance to go up or down stairs
  • Reluctance to lift or lower the head to food or water dishes
  • Lying around for days to allow the body to heal
  • Tension or spasm of the neck muscles
  • Vocalizing (spontaneously or when the neck/head is touched or moved)
  • Intermittent elevation of one of the arms, as if it were irritated
  • Reluctance to jump on or off of furniture
  • Tension in the abdomen
  • Restlessness
  • Sensitivity when playing or picked up
  • Paralysis

If the fluid-like material in the disc continues to enter the vertebral canal, explains that “neurological deficits will develop.” This can affect motor skills, coordination and joint position sense. If it continues to progress, a dog’s strength is impacted and paralysis may ensue in the limbs. A dog may also lose control over its bowel and bladder functions.

Symptoms can come on slowly or suddenly. If any symptoms do appear, pet parents should immediately consult with their veterinarian or seek emergency veterinary help.

What Causes Intervertebral Disc Disease?

As previously discussed, most dogs suffering from IVD disease are genetically prone to the disease and usually suffer from progressive deterioration over time. Many pet parents try to put a finger on what exact rough tumble or leap may have caused their dog’s disc rupture, but in most cases says, “the disc displaces owing to the combination of normal activity and an already degenerated and weakened structure.”

There’s normally no single thing or event that causes the disease, and instead the disease can reveal itself repeatedly over time. Recurrent episodes are normally due to the same disc rupture, though multiple disc ruptures are possible they’re not as prevalent.

How is Intervertebral Disc Disease Diagnosed?

When a dog is taken in to see its veterinarian for a possible IVD disease diagnosis, a pet parent should expect to be asked about the dog’s medical history and symptoms. How long has your dog had neck or back pain? Is Fido uncoordinated when walking? Has there been paralysis without any apparent injury to the dog? A pet parent should be prepared to answer these questions and more as thoroughly as possible to help aid the diagnosis.

poodle in wheelchairThe veterinarian will then perform a physical exam, says The exam will help the veterinarian determine whether or not the problem is in the dog’s spinal cord to determine if it’s indeed an IVD disease. The veterinarian will also ask about your dog’s breed. If it’s one of the various breeds with a predisposition for this type of disease, the veterinarian will know that IVD disease is a strong possibility.

“Most dogs affected by IVD disease are in the chondrodystrophoid group,” says “Since their discs are already degenerating in the first year or two of life, it is not uncommon to see some of these dogs as symptomatic patients as early as two to three years of age. The peak age of the onset for clinical IVD disease is between four and eight years of age.”

Your veterinarian may order X-rays for your dog, but unfortunately X-rays don’t always show IVD disease; in fact, in most cases they don’t since neither the spinal cord nor the disc are visible (unless the disc has calcified). If there’s strong reason to believe that your dog may have IVD disease then a myelogram will be done. A myelogram is a procedure where your vet will inject a dye into your dog’s cerebrospinal fluid while the dog’s anesthetized. The dye will then allow the spinal cord to be seen in the X-ray.

“A break in the dye column means that there is pressure on the spinal cord at that point,” writes

Normally, explains, X-rays are ordered when surgery is the most likely treatment. If your veterinarian treats the IVD disease medically, knowing the exact disc affected by the disease isn’t necessarily needed. In any case, your veterinarian should discuss what’s involved with this procedure and why it’s necessary in the dog’s diagnosis or treatment.

Other specialized X-rays that may be ordered are a computed tomography (CT or “CAT” scan) or a magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI), writes. The CT scan can create “cross-sectional images of the spine and discs,” where the MRI can create extremely detailed images of “the spine, spinal cord, nerve roots, and discs.”

“It also permits examination in multiple planes (side-to-side, top-to-bottom, and front-to-back),” says “So that no macroscopic lesions escape detection, and it permits the most precise surgical planning.”

How is Intervertebral Disc Disease Treated?

Not all ruptured discs are treated with surgery. Treatment of IVD disease is dependent on the severity of the disease, based on stages.

The following outlines the stages of IVD disease and the symptoms at each stage, according to

  • Stage I — Disc disease produces mild pain and is usually self-correcting in a few days.
  • Stage II — Disc disease causes moderate to severe pain in the neck or lumbar (lower back) area.
  • Stage III — Disc disease causes partial paralysis and results in the dog walking in staggering or uncoordinated movements.
  • Stage IV — Disc disease causes paralysis but the ability to feel is present.
  • Stage V — Disc disease causes paralysis and loss of feeling.

At stages two and three, treatment usually involves anti-inflammatory drugs, pain relievers, and exercise restriction. If symptoms continue past four to seven days after this treatment, then surgery might be considered. Vets recommend that dogs with stage four IVD disease have surgery, but dogs with stage five IVD disease should have immediate surgery.

“The sooner that surgery is done, the better the prognosis,” says “Ideally, these dogs should be operated on within the first 24 hours of the onset of paralysis.”

Dogs that’ve gone through surgery or are paralyzed will require much attention, including “physical therapy, general hygiene, and management of incontinence.” As previously explained, dogs with mild pain are treatable through management of the IVD disease with medications, rest and restricted activity.

Other treatments for dogs suffering with IVD disease, according to, include: massage, hydrotherapy, and special carts to help with mobility (K9 carts, for example).

glucosamine and chondroitin supplement can also help reduce inflammation and pain, and strengthen the cartilage while simultaneously inhibiting the enzymes that break it down.

Though many pet parents successfully help their dogs manage IVD disease, many more will be permanently paralyzed by the disease. At this point, pet parents are left with the unfortunate decision of whether or not to euthanize their dogs or try to create the best quality of life for their disabled pet. It’s important to consult with your veterinarian about your options and do your research when making your decision.

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HOW TO articles are intended for informational purposes only. You should always consult with your veterinarian about any health issues affecting your dog.

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