If you own a dachshund or other long-bodied breed, you likely are familiar with intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), which affects the spinal cord and can cause signs ranging from pain to hind-end paralysis. Read on for our Billings Animal Family Hospital team’s answers to your questions about IVDD.

Question: What is the function of intervertebral discs?

Answer: The spine consists of a series of bones called vertebrae, and intervertebral discs lie between the vertebrae. These discs, often likened to a jelly doughnut, cushion and absorb movement in the spine. The outer layer, called the annulus fibrosus (i.e., the doughnut part), is made up of strong fibers that connect the vertebrae. The inner section (i.e., the “jelly”) is called the nucleus pulposus and acts as a shock absorber. If either of these structures are damaged, they can put pressure on the spinal cord nerves.

Q: What occurs with intervertebral disc disease?

A: Pets who develop IVDD suffer from deteriorating discs that press on the spinal cord and can suffer pain, nerve damage, incontinence, and immobility. 

IVDD occurs as Type I and Type II:

  • Type I The gel portion of the disc extrudes through the outer layer, and over time, the nucleus degenerates and hardens and can no longer act as a shock absorber. Dogs with a long back and short legs are more at risk for Type I IVDD.
  • Type II When the fibrous outer layer breaks down, both disc parts can bulge out and compress the spinal cord. Type II is more common in larger dog breeds, but can occur in any pet.

Q: What are intervertebral disc disease signs in pets?

A: IVDD signs depend on the type and how much the disc damages the spinal cord. Generally, Type II causes less severe signs, but both types can cause the following issues:

  • Pain, particularly when the back or neck is petted
  • Weakness or lameness in the hind legs
  • Hind feet that cross while walking
  • Refusal to jump on furniture or walk
  • Hunched back
  • Decreased appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Inability to posture to eliminate
  • Urinary or fecal incontinence

Severely damaged pets can suffer from loss of pain perception and become paralyzed. 

Q: Do any factors increase a pet’s risk of developing intervertebral disc disease?

A: While any pet can develop IVDD from activity or daily wear and tear that causes a herniated disc, some pets are at increased risk. Pets with short legs and long backs are most at risk, with dachshunds accounting for 45% to 70% of all cases. These stubby pets typically develop IVDD between 3 and 6 years of age, although X-rays can show evidence of disc calcification by age 2. Affected dogs with more “normal” body types (e.g., Labradors, German shepherds) usually do not show IVDD development until they are 5 to 12 years of age.

Q: How is intervertebral disc disease diagnosed in pets?

A: If your pet appears to have a slipped disc, our Billings Animal Family Hospital veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam to try to pinpoint the painful location along the spine. Our team will also run blood work to check for any abnormalities, but advanced imaging is usually required to achieve a definitive diagnosis. Spinal X-rays may show hints of narrowed disc spaces or calcified disc material, but myelography, MRI, or a CT will confirm IVDD.

Q: How is intervertebral disc disease treated in pets?

A: Treatment depends on disease severity. Mild cases often recover with two to three weeks of cage rest, but clinical signs can recur, particularly if the pet is excessively active. Pets with severe neurological deficits need prompt surgery to alleviate spinal cord compression by removing the disc material. A pet who is still walking at the time of surgery will likely recover well, but a pet who can no longer feel pain in their hind limbs may not be able to walk again, despite surgical correction. 

Q: Can I prevent my pet from developing intervertebral disc disease?

A: You cannot prevent your pet from developing IVDD, but you can minimize their risk potential by:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight — Nothing is more beneficial for your pet’s health than helping them maintain a healthy weight. Keeping your furry pal in a lean body condition will prevent extra strain and pressure on their spine, joints, and organs, and provide total-body benefits. Long-backed dogs in particular need to stay at a healthy weight, yet many dachshunds and similar breeds who suffer from IVDD are overweight.
  • Using a harness — Pets who tug continuously at a traditional neck collar put a tremendous amount of strain on their cervical vertebrae. Avoid this situation by swapping out a regular collar for a body harness, and by teaching your pet to walk on a loose leash.
  • Avoiding high-impact activity — Jumping on and off furniture and beds puts an impressive amount of force on your pet’s front limbs and spine as they absorb the shock of landing. Install ramps or stairs next to their preferred resting spots, and minimize their jumping and other high-impact activity as much as possible.

If your pet is showing any IVDD signs and you suspect a ruptured intervertebral disc, they need immediate veterinary care. Contact our Billings Animal Family Hospital team for help.