Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) in Dogs

Updated June 6, 2021

‘At A Glance (Details Below)’ What to do

When A Dog Has Sudden Back Problems

  1. Sudden loss of control of the hind legs is a life threatening emergency
  2. Keep affected dogs as still as possible until a vet can examine them
  3. Home care or surgical options exist, & dogs can go on to live normal lives

Now dive deeper…

Have a look at the video below and pay close attention to how Rickey is walking. That’s not a limp caused by a sore leg. To a vet, that’s an emergency. If your dog ever starts walking like this, especially after a jump or fall, keep them very still and see a vet immediately. Their life may depend on it.

What Is Ataxia?

Rickey is ataxic. That means he’s lost some control over how his legs are moving, and it’s a hallmark of neurological disease. Something is interfering with his nervous system’s ability to move his legs.

There are many possible reasons for hind leg problems that you can read here, but for Ricky, one cause stands head and shoulders above the rest…

Intervertebral Disk Disease

Intervertebral disks are the flexible pads that sit between the spinal vertebral bones in the back. They act both as joints and cushions, and are yet another marvel of nature. IVDD is when the disk fails, and although it’s often called a ‘slipped disk’, that’s not really what happens in dogs.

Rickey’s disk didn’t slip, it burst after he jumped off a chair. In Type I IVDD, the disk itself degenerates and the ring of fibres that holds it together weakens. Eventually it gets weak enough that a sudden compressive force, usually from jumping off furniture, causes the outer fibres to split and the inner disk content to be violently expelled.

Dog IVDD spine

The bad news is that when it ruptures, contents of the disk often travel towards the spinal cord. That’s Rickey’s xrays showing which disk is the likely culprit. You can see that the spinal canal containing the cord runs just above the disk. What we can’t see on the xray is that some of that disk material is now pressing on the spinal cord hard enough to stop the flow of nerve signals.

Which Dogs Are At Risk

IVDD is mostly associated with certain dog breeds. These include:

  • American Cocker Spaniel
  • Basset Hound
  • Beagle
  • Bichon Frise
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • Chihuahua
  • Corgi
  • Dachshund
  • Dandie Dinmont Terrier
  • English Springer Spaniel
  • French Bulldog
  • Jack Russell Terrier
  • Pekingese
  • Poodle (Miniature and Toy
  • Scottish Terrier
  • Shih Tzu

What all these breeds have in common is a genetic defect called chondrodystrophy. The same thing that causes their cute body shape also causes premature degeneration of intervertebral discs. IVDD is always more common in overweight dogs of these breeds.

In our clinic, IVDD also occurs in very excitable and energetic dogs of any breed. This may explain an increased prevalence observed in male dogs. There is a higher risk in desexed (neutered) females that could be explained by increased weight.

Why Is IVDD Serious?

Rickey was lucky; his cord injury was only partial, his owner brought him straight down and he responded well to treatment. All three of these factors can easily go the other way.

  • Disks can rupture with enough volume or force to totally and permanently disable the spinal cord
  • Movement of the spine can cause more and more disk material to press on the cord until paralysis ensues
  • Some dogs don’t respond and need advanced referral surgery

If a dog has lost all voluntary movement and pain sensation to the hind legs, there’s still a chance that rapid surgical decompression can save them. However, if paralysis can’t be reversed there’s not much hope for quality of life. I know from bitter experience that no matter what people say about how good their dog is on a cart, the reality of their life is very different.

Dogs with IVDD often have back pain at the time of the spinal injury, shown by arching of the back, shivering and lethargy. It’s especially important to be aware of signs of the disease in susceptible breeds such as the Dachshund, Beagle, Shih Tzu, Lhasa Apso or Pekingese. Sometimes the main problem is pain from nerve root compression, not neurological dysfunction.

Confirmation of the diagnosis is only possible with advanced imaging such as CT scans or MRI. However, in most cases the combination of the history and examination plus plain x-rays are enough for vets to be confident. X-rays such as Rickey’s often show a narrow disk space and/or calcified disk material visible in the spinal canal.

There are two options for treatment:

1. Conservative Treatment

For dogs with mild to moderate signs, and no further worsening, conservative treatment is often very successful. However, I have personally seen too many dogs get worse with poorly managed conservative treatment.

The theory behind cage rest is that if the dog is kept extremely still, the disk material will stop moving and the body is able to wall off and repair the damage. Dogs must be confined in a cage that is only just big enough to fit their bed plus food and water.

The only times a dog should be allowed out of the cage for at least the first two weeks is while being held to go to the toilet. Yes, it sounds cruel, but if the dog is near the owner, they are usually happy enough. The consequences of failure are just too serious to take chances.

A vital part of conservative treatment is close monitoring by the owner and vet, with the readiness to change course quickly if necessary.

2. Surgical Treatment

Surgical referral is best if a dog is severely affected, has repeated episodes, or fails to respond to conservative treatment. The option of referral is always available even in milder cases even if only for a second opinion and advanced imaging.

Long-Term Management

Rickey responded well and will eventually be able to return to a normal life. However, he’s always at risk of a recurrence so we’ve made a few changes:

  • Weight loss: he wasn’t fat but we want him as thin as is comfortable
  • No high impact activity: walking is good, running and jumping are bad
  • No access to furniture: an example would be settling in a crate at night to stop a dog jumping on the bed

Rickey’s case was successful for more than one reason. When his owner rang for a Saturday appointment, we were already booked to 5:30pm and the nurse, to her credit, didn’t hesitate to slot him in, even though it was ‘only a leg problem’. Who could have guessed over the phone how much danger Rickey was in?

Now Read: The Link Between Neutering & IVDD In Dachshunds

Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.


18 Replies to “Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) in Dogs”

  1. Our Chi we believe may have hurt himself jumping off a couch. He is 3 and was just fixed a month ago. He yelps and tried to bite when I try to pick him up. He is walking and drinking water. He can lift his leg to pee. His front left leg looks a little gimpy but he’s not limping. This morning he jumped up on my lap but acted wierd like ears back and sort of shaking and stiff looking. When he jumped down he yelped and went to lay down. His back legs are fine. Any suggestions? Thx

  2. I took our 3-year-old Pomeranian to the vet yesterday, due to intermittent yelping and change in preferred sleeping position. The vet thought it may be a luxating patella, and sent us home with remadyl with re-check in a week. However, the more closely I watch him, the more I think it’s his cervical spine, because he yelps when he raises his head. I will take him back to the vet asap for xrays. Thanks so much for your thoughtful article.

  3. I have a 4 ur old Shepard/boarder collie mix. She suddenly began crying & yelping for no reason & shaking terribly. Took her to my vet. They gave her gabapentin & muscle relaxer. Didn’t do any labs or test on her. Said she has sore muscles. I don’t feel this is accurate as she is screaming in pain. This is more then discomfort. She’s eating & drinking & wants to play but she can’t. She’s normally a jumper (gets up in ur face) but can’t do that right now. Usually runs up the stairs, now she goes slow & down stairs she almost wants to go sideways. What do u think??

    1. Hi Kemberlie. It’s difficult to say I’m sorry without a physical examination. What I can say is that IVDD is very uncommon in both this breed and at this age. It’s not unusual for Vets to prescribe pain relievers or anti-inflammatories after a physical if there’s nothing more obviously wrong than pain.

  4. Hello,

    My chihuahua mix was diagnosed with IVDD. He is now limping from his left leg and cries every times he tries to get up. He hasn’t poop since we came back from the emergency room, Sunday 24th, 2021. Tomorrow he will be visiting a vet but am afraid he won’t be able to poop voluntarily. I don’t know how this process works. He is 11 years old please give me more information. Help me so he will be able to walk again.

    1. Hi Hazel. If you can’t see your vets any sooner, keep him as quiet and still as possible until then. There’s too much variation to be able to give you more specific advice I’m sorry. Good luck.

  5. Hey. My dachshund recently got diagnosed with IVDD. he’s undergoing conservative treatment but his back hurts. He yelps in pain and doesn’t move much.
    So is a surgery required or would conservative treatment help reducing pain ? And is the pain normal if he’s recovering ?

    1. Hi Yashaswi. There’s no way it’s normal for dogs with successful conservative treatment well-supervised by a vet to be experiencing pain. Get back in touch with your vets straight away.

      1. Like all diseases involving damage to the nervous system, there is no one rule for recovery. Sometimes dogs recover function within a week, others never do. All you can do is be guided by the diagnostic work that has been done, and the experience of your veterinary team.

  6. My 3 month old Shadow was playing inside the house and all of the sudden he is running and crying in pain when I examined him there was a blood in his mouth but I dont know where it came from since he dont want to be touch he was also salivating. Its almost two hours he never change his position because every time he moves he is crying in pain. What can you say about this?

    1. Hi Teresita. The most likely explanation is something stuck in the mouth. Hopefully by now you’ve already got to a vet as it’s an emergency.

  7. Please please can you help us! We live inSouth Africa but I have a video of our dog… We took him to 2 vets already… but its getting worse!!! Please please I beg you!! We cant lose him

    1. Hi Hugo. I’m sorry to hear about your dog and I’m happy to view the video. If you post it on social media or YouTube please send a reply with the link. However, I’m afraid that a video alone isn’t going to provide a diagnosis. My best advice is to find a veterinary specialist in your area (this is our local list). The easiest way will be to ask your vets for a referral, which they will do happily.

      1. Hi Andrew,
        I live in the southern US and our local vet choices are tough. Our female Chihuahua is about 7 yrs old, and has had her fair share of health woes, but when she started yelping recently ‘for no reason’, I did some research and came across your article. She has exhibited partial loss of hind leg functionality, much like Rickey. She will be seeing her Vet tomorrow and we’ll go from there. Thank you for sharing this awesome info with us, it’s greatly appreciated.

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