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Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a common cause of nervous system dysfunction in dogs. In this condition, the disc between two spinal vertebrae bulges, compressing the spinal cord and compromising neurologic function.
IVDD typically occurs in chondrodystrophic breeds, or those that suffer from abnormal cartilage development and often have limbs that are disproportionally short compared with their bodies, such as Dachshunds. Other examples of chondrodystrophic breeds include Pekingese, Shih Tzu, Beagles, Miniature Poodles, Cocker Spaniels, Welsh Corgis and Basset Hounds. However, IVDD is not limited to just chondrodystrophic breeds.
The signs of IVDD can vary and depend on the degree of spinal cord compression as well as the length of time during which the compression occurs. Clinical signs can range from neck or back pain to complete paralysis. The dog may not be able to walk normally and often has a wobbly gait. Deficits in conscious proprioception, or the awareness of body position, may cause a dog to “knuckle under” rather than place paws flat on the ground. Your pet may drag a paw or both rear legs.
If you notice any of these signs in your dog, it’s extremely important to have him evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible. If the spinal cord compression is severe and your dog loses the ability to feel deep pain, the prognosis for recovery following surgery can be poor. Without timely treatment, there’s even a risk he could become permanently paralyzed.
Your family veterinarian will perform a physical examination, including a neurologic evaluation, to determine the severity of neurologic dysfunction. If your veterinarian determines that your dog is exhibiting severe signs of IVDD, a consultation by a board-certified neurologist or surgeon may be recommended for more extensive testing and possibly surgery.
A diagnosis of IVDD is based on the dog’s clinical signs, a thorough physical exam as well as imaging studies. Your veterinarian may start with X-rays, which can sometimes identify possible trouble areas in the spine, but advanced imaging is usually needed to diagnose IVDD. With myelography, for example, dye is injected around the spinal cord and X-rays are taken to identify the location and degree of spinal cord compression. Other types of helpful imaging include computerized tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Treatment depends on the clinical signs. Dogs showing only mild signs may be treated medically and monitored closely.
Medical management will consist of strict cage rest for several weeks and potentially longer. Medications may also be recommended to help manage pain and inflammation caused by the bulging disc.
If the dog’s condition deteriorates or doesn’t improve with medical management, surgery is usually recommended.
Surgery may also be recommended for dogs that show neurologic deficits or loss of deep pain sensation or have trouble walking due to paresis (impaired movement) or paralysis (complete loss of movement).
IVDD cannot be prevented, although there are a few things you can do to decrease risk. If you have an at-risk breed, try to limit high-impact activities. If your dog likes to jump on and off furniture, a pet staircase can be used to minimize jumping. It also helps to maintain your dog at a healthy body weight. And using a harness rather than a collar can help reduce direct strain on the neck area of the spinal cord.
Once a dog has IVDD, surgery can help prevent the condition from recurring — but not always. Dachshunds, for example, have a higher risk of IVDD recurrence than other dog breeds.
IVDD is a common neurologic disease and if you own an at-risk breed and have concerns or questions about this condition, please have a conversation with your family veterinarian.
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