Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs (IVDD): What is it? What are the Symptoms? How is it Treated?

You've been worried about your dog because he's in pain and has been limping when he walks. You take him to the veterinarian, who tells you after examining him that he may have Intervertebral Disc Disease or IVDD. So you ask yourself, what can I do for my pup, and what is IVDD? Ultimately, IVDD is a condition where the discs between the spine's vertebra burst or bulge, applying pressure on the delicate nerves of the spinal cord.

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Intervertebral Disc Disease IVDD Dog with Woman by Window


Dogs, like humans, have discs between each vertebra (bones in the spine) that provides cushioning and protection to the spine and act as shock absorbers to the spinal cord. Each disc is composed of a central gel-like area called the “nucleus pulposus” and an outer fibrous ring called the “annulus fibrosis.” (source) Intervertebral Disc Disease or IVDD is a condition where the discs between the spine's vertebra burst or bulge, applying pressure on the delicate nerves of the spinal cord. This condition is often referred to as a "slipped disc" or a "herniated disc/herniation" It can lead to protrusions in the back of the vertebrae in some cases which will cause nerve damage and can lead to severe pain.

The herniating disc may be from the protrusion of the annular ring or from a tear of the annulus, causing extrusion. Without tearing, it is believed to be more of a chronic disc degeneration disease, Hansen type II. If a disc is completely ruptured, it is known as Hansen type I. 

Any dog of any age can get Intervertebral Disc Disease, although certain breeds and certain ages can see it more than others. Dogs who have IVDD can show pain, lameness, and even paralysis. It can affect a dog from the neck region all the way to the tail.

There are two primary types of IVDD:

  • Cervical
    • When a dog's cervical (neck) region is affected, it may cause a swaying, staggering gait, paralysis, and pain throughout the body. The cervical IVDD occurs about 18 percent of all IVDD cases.
  • Spinal
    • When a dog's back, and particularly the spinal column is affected, he may be lame in the back end or hindquarters, he may be in pain along the back, and he may suffer paralysis from the region where the damaged disk is. Thoracolumbar (back) region IVDD occurs in 65 percent of all IVDD cases. Resulting spinal cord compression is what can cause the pain and paralysis which can be debilitating for the pup.

Causes of Intervertebral Disc Disease

Dogs can get Intervertebral Disc Disease in several ways. There are two major causes of IVDD that you need to be aware of: Type I IVDD and Type II IVDD. How they appear distinguishes the type of IVDD.

  • Type I IVDD
    • Type I IVDD is caused by the calcification and hardening of the dog's discs in his back, usually in small breeds. The dog will then do something such as jump down from a bed or twist that causes the damaged disc to rupture and the contents to press against the dog's spine. This can occur in any age of dog, but is usually seen in younger dogs with short legs and long backs. The IVDD begins between two months and two years, with symptoms developing between three and six years.
  • Type II IVDD
    • Type II IVDD appears in older dogs between the ages of five and 12 years. It is the result of aging, and it seldom has calcification. The disc becomes fibrous and presses down on the spinal cord. The dog may do something that aggravates the condition by causing the disc to rupture. Unlike the Type I IVDD, Type II Intervertebral Disc Disease appears in large breeds and occurs later in the dog's life.

Breeds Most Affected

Intervertebral Disc Disease appears to have a genetic component to it. In all cases of IVDD, Dachshunds make up 45 percent to 70 percent of dogs that have this conditionChondrodystrophic (dwarfed) breeds are most commonly diagnosed as having IVDD. These dogs have had their genetic makeup alterned specifically to achieve shorter and more stout torsos. Dog breeds that may be predisposed to developing Type I IVDD include:

  • Dachshund
  • Basset Hound
  • Shih Tzu
  • American Cocker Spaniel
  • Corgi
  • Bulldog
  • French Bulldog
  • Beagle
  • Pekingese
  • Poodle

The breeds that are predisposed to developing Type II IVDD (and fall into the nonchondrodystrophic breed categories) include:

  • German Shepherd Dog
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Doberman Pinscher

Symptoms of IVDD (and similar issues that may share symptoms)

Clinical signs of dogs that have IVDD may have different symptoms, depending on where the Intervertebral Disc Disease occurs in the dog's vertebrae. These symptoms include:

  • Reluctance to climb up on furniture, or go up and down stairs
  • Refusal to eat, or not having a good appetite
  • Yelping in pain while walking or turning a certain way
  • Tense muscles
  • Arched neck or back
  • Unwilling to jump or play
  • Hindquarter weakness and pain
  • Strange or unusual walk
  • Lameness
  • Weakness on one side or the other
  • Paralysis
  • Incontinence -- either urinary or bowel incontinence; sometimes both
  • Wobbly legs
  • Paws dragging and "knuckling under"

Other diseases and conditions may mimic IVDD which is why it is necessary to have your veterinarian diagnose your dog before you begin treatment. Otherwise, you could severely injure your pet. These diseases include:

  • Tumors that may press on the spine
  • Stroke
  • Blood clot
  • Urinary Tract Infections
  • Injury to legs, paws, or back
  • Broken back
  • Hip dysplasia
  • Elbow dysplasia
  • Digestive disorders
  • Broken bones

Diagnosis of IVDD

In order to properly diagnose a dog with Intervertebral Disc Disease, you will need to bring your dog to your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will examine him and also give him a neurological assessment to determine if there are any problems with his spine. Your veterinarian will also want to take x-ray images of your dog's spine to determine if there is an impingement on your dog's spinal cord. However, x-rays only confirm about 60 percent of IVDD cases, so your veterinarian may require your dog to have an MRI or a CT scan. In some instances, your veterinarian may wish to have a myelogram performed. With myelograms, the veterinarian injects a contrasting dye into the spinal cord to get a better view of possible impingement.

Once your veterinarian has determined that this is Intervertebral Disc Disease, he or she will recommend a course of treatment.

Prevention of IVDD

At this point, you may be wondering how you might prevent your dog from getting Intervertebral Disc Disease. While you can't prevent it in your dog, you can do many things that will help mitigate the potential symptoms associated with it, and help prevent having to treat your dog for IVDD. Here are some good rules to follow:

  • Keep your dog lean and fit. That means walks and exercise that will help keep the weight off and feeding him a proper diet that avoids getting him fat.
  • Use ramps to help your dog get in and out of the car.
  • Have steps or ramps that your dog can use to get up on furniture, if he's allowed.
  • Discourage jumping and jerking motions with your dog.
  • If your dog pulls on a leash, use a harness instead of a collar to avoid stress on your dog's neck.

Understand that even if you implement these suggestions, there's still a chance that your dog will display signs of Intervertebral Disc Disease if he has it. Spay or neuter your pet to avoid perpetuating this disease in your dog's offspring.

Stages of IVDD

You may be wondering if IVDD has stages. It may, but it is unlikely you will see them until the injury has already occurred. Let's look at what you may see if your dog has IVDD.

  • Early
    • In the earliest stage, you won't see any problems even though the discs are starting to harden. Your dog acts normally and doesn't show any outward signs.
  • Mid
    • During the mid stage, your dog may be fine, and then suddenly yelp and act lame. Or, he may jump and land wrong, causing the disk to rupture and suddenly be in pain or have problems with walking. The ruptured disk is pressing on the spinal cord, but there may not be damage to the spinal cord yet.
  • Late
    • Your dog may experience paralysis, incontinence, and extreme pain. At this stage, there is significant impingement on the spinal cord, which may or may not be treatable. In these cases, surgery is recommended. If there is bleeding in the spinal cord (called myelomalacia), it will be unlikely your dog will regain his ability to walk.

2 Treatment Options for IVDD

The severity of Intervertebral Disc Disease in your dog will determine the method of treatment. Some dogs, even with weakness or paralysis, may be able to recover without surgery, especially if the cost of treating IVDD becomes too prohibitive. The cost will vary according to your veterinarian, the region you live in, the extent of your pet's IVDD, and which course of treatment your dog has.

1) Conservative

In mild cases of IVDD, your veterinarian will likely order crate rest for your pet along with steroids or other pain-relieving medications, and muscle relaxers. This typically lasts from two to four weeks. Some owners have holistic veterinarians perform acupuncture on their dogs as a way of providing pain relief, and massage has been determined to help alleviate tense muscles and pain. Your veterinarian may give you certain physical therapy exercises to perform on your dog to aid healing, or you may need to have your dog attend physical therapy sessions. The amount of time your dog will have to spend in his crate depends on the injury and how long it takes him to heal. Once your veterinarian has determined that your dog has healed sufficiently, you can slowly reintroduce his normal activities. 

  • Anti-inflammatory medicine can also be provided to help reduce pain and discomfort for your dog's back pain and neck pain. 
  • Hydrotherapy is also a treatment option for dogs suffering from IVDD (source).

2) Surgical

In severe cases of IVDD, the only route to go would be surgery. Surgery is reserved for paralyzed dogs, incontinent dogs, and dogs who are in extreme pain due to their condition. Surgery provides immediate relief by removing the ruptured portion of the disc that is pressing on the spinal cord. This surgery is done by a veterinary neurosurgeon. The surgeon cuts a portion of the vertebra where the ruptured disk occurred and cuts away the damaged disk that is impinging on the spinal cord. Once your dog has this surgery, he will have to stay in the veterinary hospital for an average time of one week.

Prognosis and Aftercare

After coming home from surgery, it takes another week for the incision to heal. Physical therapy is important for your dog to gain a full range of movement again. Your dog will most likely be on pain medication and medication that will help your dog relieve himself when his bladder is full. (Many dogs who are dealing with IVDD may have issues with urinating, so this is important to address.) Acupuncture may help in his aftercare.

If you choose the conservative method of treatment, you will still want to consider physical therapy as well as pain medication, muscle relaxants, and steroids. Acupuncture and massage may help as well.

The prognosis for a full recovery depends on how quickly your dog is diagnosed and treated for IVDD. If you let the injury go on without treatment, there is a risk of doing serious, permanent damage that can't be reversed. Choosing to go the conservative route takes longer to alleviate pain and promote healing, and should only be used in mild cases of IVDD.


What causes intervertebral disc disease in dogs?

Intervertebral Disc Disease is a congenital disease that primarily appears in certain breeds, but can show up in any breed or mixed breed. It involved the hardening of the discs between the vertebrae which rupture due to stress on them.

Is intervertebral disc disease hereditary in dogs?

Yes, Intervertebral Disc Disease is believed to be hereditary. If your dog has IVDD, you should not breed him.

    Is intervertebral disc disease in dogs common?

    Yes, Intervertebral Disc Disease is quite common in dogs. Small dogs with short legs and long backs often show IVDD between three and six years. Large dogs will show IVDD between five and 12 years.

      How to prevent intervertebral disc disease in dogs?

      You cannot prevent Intervertebral Disc Disease, but you can reduce the possibility for ruptured disks by discouraging jumping, reducing strain on your dog's spine by using ramps or stairs to get in and out of the car, and steps for dogs who are allowed to climb up on the furniture.

        Is physical rehab after surgery important?

        Physical rehab is very important for dogs who have the IVDD surgery. They must strengthen their leg muscles, so they can walk as well as relearn to relieve themselves properly.

          What is aftercare after surgery like?

          You will probably learn how to do some of your dog's rehab yourself. You will most likely give your dog medication that will help with the pain and promote healing. Your dog may benefit from both massage and acupuncture. The prognosis of your dog's recovery depends largely on how soon your veterinarian identified the IVDD and how much damage was done to your dog's spinal cord. It is also highly dependent on how much effort you put into your dog's rehab.


            Author: Margaret Bonham

            About Margaret: Margaret is a three-time DWAA (Dog Writers Association of America) Maxwell award-winning author and a two-time CWA (Cat Writers Association) award-winning Muse writer for excellence in pet writing. She has also won the Iams Responsible Pet Ownership Award for writing excellence, the Pet Sitters International (PSI) First Person Canine Award, and the winner of the best article at Yahoo. She is the author of more than 40 books, both non-fiction and fiction, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Labrador RetrieversThe Complete Guide to Mutts, & Introduction to Dog Agility. She lives with two Alaskan Malamutes, a German Shorthaired Pointer, and two cats, all rescued, along with chickens, geese, goats, a llama, and a very opinionated horse.

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