Your 4-year-old dachshund seems completely normal while they are enjoying quality couch time with you, but then they jump to the floor, and immediately start yelping. When you pick them up to determine the problem, they become more upset. You also notice that they seem to be having trouble using their hind limbs.

Your poor pooch is likely a victim of intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), which is a common problem in dogs that can significantly impact their quality of life. Our Tamberly Animal Hospital team provides information about this disease, in case your dog is at risk. 

Intervertebral disc disease in dogs

The dog’s spine is composed of seven cervical (i.e., neck) vertebrae, 13 thoracic (i.e., chest) vertebrae, seven lumbar (i.e., lower back) vertebrae, three sacral (i.e., between the lower back and tail) vertebrae, and a varying number of tail vertebrae, all connected by joints that are cushioned by intervertebral discs located between the vertebral bodies. Each intervertebral disc has a fibrous outer shell (i.e., the annulus fibrosus) and a jelly-like interior (i.e., the nucleus pulposus). Two main IVDD types affect the intervertebral disc, putting pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots. These include:

  • Hansen type I disc disease — This type most commonly affects chondrodystrophoid breeds, such as dachshunds, beagles, and Lhasa apsos, with signs mostly seen between 3 and 6 years of age. The nucleus pulposus calcifies and ruptures through the annulus fibrosus into the vertebral canal. 
  • Hansen type II disc disease — This type most commonly affects large-breed dogs such as German shepherds and Labrador retrievers, and has a much slower degenerative process. The annulus fibrosus collapses, allowing disc material to enter the vertebral canal. Most affected dogs exhibit signs between 5 and 12 years of age. 

Recognizing intervertebral disc disease in dogs

The signs a dog with IVDD exhibits will depend on their condition severity. Dogs are assigned a grade from one to five to classify their signs.

  • Grade 1 — Dogs affected by IVDD grade one will experience pain at the injury site, which  most commonly is between the second and third cervical vertebrae, the 11th and 12th thoracic vertebrae, and the second and third lumbar vertebrae.
  • Grade 2 — Dogs will be able to walk, but will be uncoordinated, and may appear to walk drunkenly, or walk on knuckled over feet. 
  • Grade 3 — Dogs will have profound weakness in their limbs that impairs their ability to move.
  • Grade 4 — Dogs will not be able to walk, but will perceive pain in the affected limbs.
  • Grade 5 — Dogs will not be able to walk, or to perceive pain in the affected limbs.

Diagnosing intervertebral disc disease in dogs

Tools used to diagnose IVDD in dogs include:

  • Neurological examination — Your dog’s gait, ability to walk, reflexes, and pain perception are evaluated.
  • X-rays — Plain X-rays can rule out other conditions, such as fractures, and can detect the affected disc space in 60% of cases.
  • Myelography — This imaging technique involves injecting a contrast dye into the vertebral canal to detect the impinged disc space. 
  • Advanced imaging — In some cases, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) is necessary to accurately diagnose IVDD.

Treating intervertebral disc disease in dogs

Dogs who have grade one to two IVDD typically do well with conservative management, but dogs affected by grades three to five usually require surgical intervention. These approaches include:

  • Conservative management — Strict cage rest for at least three weeks is necessary to allow the inflammation in the spinal cord to abate. Pain medications and anti-inflammatories are prescribed to help alleviate the pain, and physical therapy can help improve recovery.
  • Surgical management — Spinal surgery is necessary in some cases to remove the disc material and decompress the spinal cord. 

Managing back pain in dogs

Dogs affected by IVDD typically have chronic back pain, and may move abnormally to compensate for their pain, which can lead to arthritis in other joints. Steps to help manage chronic back pain in dogs include:

  • Losing weight — Excess weight puts strain on your dog’s back, and we will devise a safe weight loss strategy if your dog needs to lose a few pounds.
  • Providing ramps — Ramps can help your dog access furniture, so they don’t leap on and off high surfaces.
  • Using a harness — A harness-style leash prevents pressure on your dog’s neck. 
  • Monitoring exercise — Your dog may need restricted leash walks to prevent running, leaping, and other activities that may aggravate their condition.
  • Providing pain medications — In some cases, we may prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or other medications to help manage your dog’s pain.
  • Rehabilitation — Physical therapy exercises are extremely valuable for alleviating pain and increasing a dog’s range of motion. We will recommend appropriate exercises based on your dog’s condition. 

Knowing how to properly manage IVDD can help salvage your dog’s quality of life. If your dog is affected by back pain, contact our Tamberly Animal Hospital team, so we can determine what is causing their achy back and alleviate their pain.