What do dachshunds, pekingese, and beagles have in common? They’re several of many dog breeds at higher risk for developing intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), which far more commonly affects dogs with short legs and long backs because of their genetic makeup, but can occur in any dog. IVDD can be devastating, so Haskell Valley Veterinary Clinic wants to ensure you can recognize risk factors and early signs to provide for the best treatment outcomes in affected pets.

What is IVDD in dogs?

Intervertebral discs consist of two layers—a strong outer fibrous layer, and gel-like inner core. Together, the disc materials absorb shock between spinal bones (i.e., vertebrae) and allow smooth, flexible movement. In IVDD, the discs dry out, harden, flatten, and no longer absorb shock effectively, which can contribute to spinal stiffness and arthritis. Most pets develop some disc degeneration during the normal aging process, but IVDD accelerates changes. The disease can also cause discs to rupture and herniate, forcing disc tissue into the spinal canal and placing pressure on important nerves. Degraded spinal discs can herniate with relatively little force, such as a cough, sneeze, or misstep.

What are the IVDD types in dogs?

IVDD is generally classified into two types—Hansen types I and II. Any pet can develop either type, but small-breed pets typically develop type I, while larger breeds most often develop type II. 

  • Hansen type I — This IVDD type has been linked to specific genes in dog breeds with short legs. The genes produce the dwarfism necessary for these breeds’ unique looks, but also cause abnormal cartilage and bone development that predisposes them to disc degeneration. The miniature dachshund is the classically affected breed, with more than 20% developing IVDD, with the shih tzu, lhasa apso, beagle, corgi, cocker spaniel, and pekingese breeds also affected. Discs generally start to degenerate and calcify in dogs with type I IVDD at around 2 years old, but can acutely herniate or become painful at any age, and often require an emergency veterinary visit.
  • Hansen type II — Type II IVDD has not been linked to specific genes and usually affects older, large-breed dogs, including German shepherds, boxers, rottweilers, and pit bulls, whose discs start to degenerate around 5 years of age, or older, and tend to progress slowly. Type II disc herniations are usually less severe than type I.

What are IVDD signs in dogs?

Slow disc degeneration that does not compress major nerves may cause pain, lameness, an arched or hunched stance, and stiffness. A disc herniation that compresses the spinal cord can cause nerve dysfunction, whose signs may include:

  • Incoordination (e.g., dragging toes or stumbling)
  • Weakness
  • Paralysis, with or without loss of feeling
  • Back or neck pain

How is IVDD diagnosed in dogs?

X-rays are the first step, and can often confirm IVDD by showing compressed spaces where the discs should be, or hardened disc material that appears white on the X-raynormal disc material cannot be seen on X-ray. However, CT or MRI imaging is usually required to visualize the discs, vertebrae, and nerves in 3D detail and make a definitive diagnosis.

How is IVDD treated in dogs?

Dogs who are in pain, have only mild neurological signs, and are still walking without assistance can be treated conservatively with medications and strict cage rest for several weeks. Surgery can often restore function, and is the best option for pets with neurologic dysfunction or paralysis. Surgery is recommended within 24 hours of a pet’s paralysis, because the longer the spinal cord is compressed, the less likely the cord will heal after surgery. Some severely damaged pets never completely recover, despite surgical treatment.

Can you prevent IVDD in high-risk dogs?

You cannot change your pet’s genetics, but you can learn the signs and monitor your pet closely for changes. You should also: 

  • Keep your pet at a lean, healthy weight to reduce spinal pressure.
  • Not allow your dog with extremely short legs to jump on or off high furniture.
  • Keep your dog’s spine in a neutral, supported position when you lift or carry them.
  • Try preventive joint supplements.

What is the long-term outlook for dogs with IVDD?

Disease severity varies widely, with some pets becoming permanently paralyzed, but others recovering after surgery, or never requiring surgery at all. IVDD recurs periodically in most pets, who will need medications at times for their pain. If your pet with IVDD loses rear leg function, they can still live a fulfilling life using a wheelchair-like cart.

IVDD can be devastating, but quick action can improve your pet’s outcome. Contact our Haskell Valley Veterinary Clinic team immediately, or call the nearest emergency veterinary facility for prompt evaluation and treatment if your pet develops back pain, weakness, incoordination, or paralysis.