Back pain is so highly prevalent in people that you are probably familiar with the debilitating pain from only a minor spinal injury. Dogs are also uniquely predisposed to a specific disease that causes back pain, especially dog breeds with long bodies and short legs. 

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) commonly causes pain in affected dogs, but can also result in weakness or permanent paralysis. Because of IVDD’s potentially severe consequences, you should seek prompt veterinary care from the Animal Emergency Hospital and Urgent Care if your pet shows spinal pain or dysfunction signs. 

IVDD types and predisposed dog breeds

IVDD is a disease that often affects multiple spinal discs—the cushions that sit between spinal bones (i.e., vertebrae) to absorb shock and assist with movement. In IVDD, these discs become damaged and can compress the spinal cord, resulting in pain and neurological dysfunction, because nerve impulses can no longer travel correctly from the brain to the limbs.

IVDD can be classified into two types—Hansen Type I and Hansen Type II.

  • Type I — This type occurs most frequently in small-breed dogs and chondrodysplastic breeds (i.e., pets with long bodies and short legs). Commonly affected breeds include the dachshund, beagle, and Basset hound. In this type, discs begin to harden during young or middle age, and one sudden wrong move can result in a hernia. Affected dogs do not have disease signs until the disc herniates, and often experience multiple herniations at different spinal levels throughout their lifetime. These sudden herniations are more likely to cause paralysis than type II.
  • Type II — This type occurs most commonly in large breeds, such as the German shepherd, and is a slow, degenerative process that progresses over several years in older dogs. As the disc degenerates, the inner disc material can slowly push on spinal nerves, causing pain and fewer obvious neurological changes than type I.

IVDD signs in dogs

IVDD signs come on slowly or suddenly, and vary in severity from mild pain to severe paralysis and sensation loss. Type I disc herniations often occur suddenly after a jump or during play, while type II has a gradual onset and you may not pinpoint the pain to any one action. 

Disc herniation signs may include:

  • Pain during movement
  • Muscle tension around the spine
  • Unwillingness to use stairs, jump, walk, or run
  • Holding the tail down close to the body, or an overall hunched posture
  • Weakness or hind limb dragging
  • Complete hind limb paralysis
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Appetite or behavior change indicating pain

IVDD diagnosis and treatment

Pets with suspected IVDD are diagnosed with a thorough orthopedic and neurological examination to help rule out other pain or neurological  deficit causes. Plain film X-rays may show hardened, calcified discs or disc herniations in type I pets, or a narrowed disc space in other pets. If your pet has severe weakness, pain, or paralysis, an MRI can provide a definitive diagnosis, and show the exact herniation location and the amount of disc material compressing the spinal cord, and can help with treatment planning.

IVDD treatment depends on severity. Medical management can help reduce inflammation and pain in mild or moderate cases. Pets with a severe disc herniation usually require surgery to decompress the spinal cord and restore normal function. Surgery must be performed quickly, ideally in 24 hours, before permanent nerve damage occurs. If a “down” (i.e., paralyzed) pet does not have timely surgery, or their injuries are too severe, they may remain paralyzed.

Long-term IVDD management in dogs

The long-term prognosis is good for most pets who receive prompt medical treatment following a disc herniation. Paralyzed pets who fail surgical treatment, or whose owners cannot afford surgery, may continue to live a happy life using a doggie cart or other mobility device, but their owners must be aware that their pet will require specialized care and frequent veterinary visits to deal with secondary problems, such as urinary tract infections or skin sores.

If you own a high-risk IVDD breed, consider purchasing pet insurance that covers inherited and breed-specific conditions. Or, set aside money in a pet emergency fund, so you are prepared for the worst case scenario. IVDD surgery is highly specialized, and will likely cost several thousand dollars. Do not allow high-risk pets to make large jumps—invest in doggie stairs or ramps instead. You should also keep your pet slim to reduce stress on the spine.

A pet who suddenly experiences weakness or paralysis in their back legs, or who seems in extreme pain, should be seen immediately by our Animal Emergency Hospital and Urgent Care team. We will work to stabilize your pet and control their pain, and we can coordinate transfer to a surgical facility if your pet requires advanced imaging or surgical care. Contact us to let us know you are on your way, or if you aren’t sure whether your pet requires emergency care.