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If you have a dog with short legs and a long back, you may want to start looking for signs of intervertebral disc disease (IVDD).
This neurological condition is characterized by back pain and limited mobility in dogs. It’s commonly observed in dachshunds, basset hounds, Shih Tzus, French bulldogs, beagles and other similar dog breeds due to their long body type and stubby legs. However, it is not limited to small dogs—it can also affect large breeds, such as the German shepherd.
Read on to learn more about IVDD, including symptoms, causes and treatments available. Keep in mind that purchasing one of the best pet insurance policies can help keep your pooch—and wallet—protected from injuries and illnesses, including IVDD.
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What Is IVDD in Dogs?
Intervertebral disc disease, or IVDD, is a condition that occurs when the cushioning between the vertebrae (bones of the spinal cord) that are meant to absorb shock and cushion the spinal cord begin to harden and either “bulge or burst,” says Dr. Maren Krafchik, DVM, director of medical operations for the ASPCA Animal Hospital.
You can think of intervertebral disc structures similar to a jelly donut—they have a hard, cushioned outside and gelatinous inside. When that jelly inside hardens up over time, your dog’s spinal discs can rupture or become displaced, making it painful or even impossible for them to walk.
Not only is IVDD painful for your pup, but it’s also dangerous and can lead to other spinal injuries, such as disc herniation or spinal compression.
Symptoms and Behaviors of Dogs With IVDD
Symptoms of IVDD in dogs usually occur slowly and gradually, sometimes over several days or weeks. Not all owners may notice these symptoms, as the dog may just lay around for a few days to try and heal the injury themselves. However, in extreme cases, the disc can rupture suddenly, with some dogs losing their ability to walk in less than an hour.
If you observe any of the following behaviors or symptoms of IVDD in your dog, you should contact your veterinarian right away:
- Crossing their limbs when walking
- Dragging of feet or hind legs
- Inability to stand
- Loss of ability to urinate
- Loss of pain perception
- Pain in the back or neck
- Reluctance to moving, exercising or jumping
- Stiff appearance
Types of IVDD in Dogs
There are three different types of IVDD that can occur in dogs: Hansen type I, II and III. Here is a brief overview of each:
Hansen Type I
This type of IVDD is commonly referred to as a “slipped disc.” It occurs when the center of the disc becomes hardened and loses its flexibility, which can lead to damage and degeneration. In this case, your dog will experience a great deal of pain and suffer from limited movement. Some cases of Hansen type I IVDD can cause permanent damage, so if you suspect there’s an issue with your dog’s spine, take them to their veterinarian right away.
Hansen type I IVDD is most common in small dogs with long backs and disproportionate limbs such as dachshunds, corgis, poodles, beagles or basset hounds between the ages of 3 to 6, according to VCA Animal Hospitals.
Hansen Type II
More commonly found in larger breeds such as German shepherds, Doberman pinschers and Labrador retrievers, and typically occurs between the age of 8 to 10 years old. This type of IVDD occurs more slowly than Hansen type I IVDD. Over the course of months or even years, the disc collapses and presses against the spinal cord, causing long-term pain and injury.
Hansen Type III (Trauma-Related Injury)
Much less common than Hansen types I or II, type III occurs due to a sudden and traumatic injury. Described as a “low volume, high velocity” herniation, it’s caused by intense exercise or trauma that causes excessive force on the spinal disc. This results in pain for your dog, and difficulty walking—ranging from poor control of the back legs to complete paralysis, or in some severe cases, the development of myelomalacia, or the softening and death of the spinal cord.
What are the Stages of IVDD in Dogs?
There are five stages of IVDD in dogs based on symptoms, and each stage determines the course of treatment. Here is a brief overview of what each stage looks like.
Stage one: Dogs in stage one of IVDD will experience mild pain without neurological deficits, according to Krafchik. They can still walk and have a high chance of full recovery.
Stage two: This stage includes moderate to severe pain in the neck or lower back of your dog. Your pet can still probably walk during this stage, however, they may be weaker and knuckled over. Fortunately, dogs in this stage also have an elevated chance of full recovery.
Stage three: Dogs with stage three IVDD will experience paresis, or difficulty placing their legs on the ground. “Signs of paresis include difficulty walking, incoordination, or inability to stand,” Krafchik says. In these cases, the success rates are slightly lower and surgery is often recommended.
Four stage: Pets with stage four IVDD will experience complete paralysis. They are unable to move their legs but will still be able to feel pain, according to Krafchik. Surgery is highly recommended and there is roughly a 50% chance of success to revitalize movement in their legs.
Stage five: Dogs in stage five will have complete paralysis, meaning they cannot move their limbs and have no pain perception. “Stage five signals the loss of deep pain as elicited on deep pinching of their toes or bone,” Krafchik says. Dogs in this stage require surgery, and success levels for recovery are low.
How to Test for IVDD In Dogs
As far as IVDD diagnosis goes, the earlier the better, as an early diagnosis can help improve your pet’s odds of recovery.
To diagnose your dog with IVDD, you must seek medical assistance from your veterinarian. They will typically start with a thorough physical examination to pinpoint the location of the problematic disc in the spine and where your pooch is feeling pain the most and to evaluate the severity of their situation.
While it may be easy to strongly suspect IVDD as the cause of the symptoms, a confirmed diagnosis will require order imaging of the spine, usually through a radiograph or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). However, in some cases, additional blood work or screenings may be necessary to eliminate other reasons your pet may be in pain.
Treatment Costs for Dogs With IVDD
Fortunately, most mild cases of IVDD have affordable treatment costs, as it usually includes simply preventing your dog from jumping, cutting back on playtime, maintaining your dog’s body weight at a healthy level and giving them crate rest.
For more severe cases, the recovery timeline will vary. Dogs that still have mobility and are able to feel pain pre-surgery will typically return to normal after two to three months with post-op rehabilitation such as acupuncture for pain management, physical therapy or massage therapy sessions for muscle strengthening, or treatments for inflammation management and healing.
Your veterinarian may prescribe medications to reduce the pain, swelling and inflammation, such as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication like carprofen, which typically costs around $12, depending on the dosage. They may also prescribe anxiety relief pills to help your dog get the rest they need, such as gabapentinwhich also costs around $12, on average.
Surgery for IVDD aims to remove the damaged disc material and reduce spinal pressure to improve blood flow and prevent future injury. This can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $8,000 depending on where you live and the individual veterinary practice. In addition, owners are advised to continue physical therapy and exercise restrictions post-op to help their dog heal. Here is a breakdown of what these costs may look like, according to Fetch Pet:
- Exam Fee: Usually around $45-250 per exam
- Diagnostic tests (blood work, radiographs, MRI, ultrasound, computed tomography (CT)): $150-$3,000 per test
- Medical Therapy (pain medications, sedatives, muscle relaxers, follow-up care): $12-$250 per visit or refill
- IVDD Surgery: $1,500-$4,000
- Rehabilitation (acupuncture, physical therapy, massage therapy, laser therapy): $60-$200 per session
Is IVDD Covered by Pet Insurance?
IVDD can be a costly disease in dogs due to the many diagnostic tests, treatments or surgery required to repair a dog’s spine. Fortunately, many of the best pet insurance policies will cover these costs as long as it is not a pre-existing condition. It’s a good idea to shop around and find the right policy for your dog’s needs and purchase it before something happens, especially if they’re a breed prone to this disease.
What Is the Life Expectancy of Dogs With IVDD?
Fortunately, most dogs with mild to moderate IVDD will recover with rehabilitation or surgery, Krafchik says. However, the odds decrease for those with more severe spinal injuries.
IVDD often occurs relatively slowly, typically over several days or weeks; however, there are cases of discs rupturing very suddenly, so it is important to keep a watchful eye on your dog and take note of any potential indications of IVDD. It is also important to note that your dog can have a slipped disc on the same disc more than once, or in another adjacent disc.
Is IVDD Common in Senior Dogs?
IVDD in senior dogs is not uncommon, as this disease is a degenerative process associated with aging.
“IVDD is a common source of back pain in older dogs,” Krafchik says. Particularly for predisposed breeds, such as the German shepherd, IVDD is much more common as they reach their older years. However, it’s important to note that IVDD for dogs can occur at any stage of life and is not uncommon for younger dogs.
Can You Prevent IVDD In Dogs?
Unfortunately, there is no way to completely prevent IVDD in your dog.
“For some dogs, no matter what an owner does, they may still have IVDD,” Krafchik says. However, if you know that your dog is a predisposed breed you can take some precautions such as keeping your pet at a healthy weight, using harnesses instead of neck leashes, restraining your dog from jumping on and off furniture, or limiting high-impact activities .
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IVDD is, fortunately, a treatable but costly disease. When given medical treatment or surgery, most dogs can expect to make a full recovery. That’s why it is important to monitor your dog for symptoms and catch them early on, and consider investing in the financial cushion of pet insurance before the fact.