Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease

By Langley Cornwell

One of the ways we are similar to dogs is the construction and function of our vertebral column, otherwise known as our backbone or spinal column. Human and canine backbones are made up of vertebrae that are separated by spongy disks which have a jelly-like core. These jelly-like disks cushion the individual vertebrae and make it possible for our backs to bend, twist and flex with ease. This cushioning also makes it possible for us to distribute and carry the load of our weight comfortably while we go about our days.

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a disorder where these jelly-like disks located between the vertebrae of the spinal column either bulge or burst (usually referred to as a herniated or slipped disk). When that happens, they push into the spinal cord space and press on the nerves that run through the spinal cord. This condition can cause back pain, nerve damage and even paralysis.

I learned more than I wanted to know about intervertebral disc disease in dogs a while back. At the time, I lived with my two lab mix dogs and a roommate that had a cocker spaniel. This cocker was a high-energy, yippy dog that demanded a lot of attention.

One night her dog woke me up with his crying; the dog was having trouble standing up and was obviously in a great deal of pain. We rushed the dog to the emergency vet clinic and were told that he was suffering from intervertebral disc disease.

This ailment can happen to humans as well as any breed of dog. Some breeds, however, have a higher likelihood of suffering from IVDD, including the Basset Hound, Beagle, Dachshund and Shih Tzu.

Symptoms of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease

If a dog has IVDD, you may notice the following:

• back pain
• pelvic limb ataxia (walking wobbly)
• inability to stand
• inability to move the back legs
• inability to feel the rear legs

According to the Southeast Veterinary Neurology Center, veterinarians use this scale to determine the severity of the condition:

• Level 1 – Pain only: These dogs are able to walk normally, but exhibit signs of pain including reluctance to jump or even move, crying, trembling, having muscle spasms and/or a tense abdomen.
• Level 2 – Ambulatory paraparesis (partial paralysis affecting the lower limbs): These dogs are able to walk, but when they do they’re weak and wobbly in the hind legs. Their back legs may even cross when they’re trying to walk. The back legs may also splay out, knuckle over or the dog may stumble or seem unsteady in his hind quarters.
• Level 3 – Non-ambulatory paraparesis: These dogs are still able to move their legs and wag their tails, but they’re not strong enough to stand up or support their own weight with their back legs.
• Level 4 – Paraplegia: These dogs have no voluntary movement in their back legs.
• Level 5 – Paraplegia with no deep pain perception: In addition to being unable to move their hind legs, they are unable to even feel their hind legs.

Treatments for Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease

As with similar conditions, treatment for IVDD depends on the severity of the symptoms. We were fortunate. Because it was the first sign of a problem, my roommate’s cocker spaniel was diagnosed as a level one. Dogs that experience back pain or wobbly walking (pelvic limb ataxia) for the first time can often be treated with a conservative, non-surgical approach that involves cage rest and medications. So my roommate’s little buddy had to hang out in his cage to keep him from bouncing off the walls. The well-timed CANIDAE Snap-Bits reward for good behavior made his cage time more bearable.

Dogs with more severe symptoms or dogs with persistent or recurring back pain that doesn’t respond to rest and meds may have to face surgery to decompress the spinal cord. A thorough examination accompanied by an MRI can identify the size and location of the herniated disk.

Surgery for IVDD has a high success rate. Dogs that fall into level one through four have a 95% success rate if the condition is noticed in time and the dog is given the proper care.

Top photo by Slabcity Gang
Bottom photo by Hanna Gustafsson

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell

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