This article was last updated in June 2021.
When we first got 10 week old Django, Mike and I (Steph) would take him outside every 2-3 hours in our Brooklyn neighborhood for bathroom breaks. Most of these trips consisted of Django sitting in the middle of a busy NYC sidewalk and staring up at strangers until they came over to pet him. We met so many wonderful owners and fans of dachshunds. Surprisingly, so many of these New Yorkers had an unsolicited story to tell us about their dachshund and intervertebral disc disease (IVDD).
To be completely honest, I never really thought much about IVDD until recently. Django turned 3 in August, and I suddenly remembered an IVDD statistic: dachshunds and other "at-risk" breeds (typically those with short legs and long backs) are most likely to get IVDD between ages 3 and 6. Although Mike and I have done our best to protect Django's back (i.e. we don't let him jump on and off furniture), sometimes IVDD just happens. As Django gets older, I can't help but pray that he never experiences disc disease.
So what exactly is IVDD? I did a LOT of research so I could better understand IVDD: causes and symptoms of the condition, prevention, and treatment options.
Here is everything you need to know.
Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a condition where intervertebral discs between a dog’s spinal vertebrae bulge or burst. Bulging or bursting intervertebral discs can enter the spinal cord space and put pressure on spinal nerves. This can cause wobbling and incoordination, pain, nerve damage, and even lower body paralysis.
If you’re lost, don’t worry! We were too before researching canine spines and IVDD. Let’s start with the basics…
The spine is made up of individual vertebrae bones. Dogs have 30 vertebrae running from the neck to the tailbone. All canines have 7 cervical vertebrae (neck), 13 thoracic vertebrae (chest), 7 lumbar vertebrae (lower back), and 3 sacral vertebrae (pelvic).
The vertebrae between the neck (cervical) and the lower back (lumbar) have soft cushions between them called intervertebral discs. Intervertebral discs are made of cartilage and allow the neck, chest, and lower back to bend. They also act as shock absorbers. When a dog jumps off a couch or bed, intervertebral discs are cushioning the fall—they are preventing the dog’s spinal vertebrae bones from touching or banging together.
The spinal cord, which is made up of spinal nerves, runs through the vertebrae.
There are two types of intervertebral disc disease:
Type 1 intervertebral disc disease, also known as a “slipped disc”, occurs when the middle part of the intervertebral disc (nucleus pulposus) breaches the outer part of the disc (annulus fibrosis) and enters the spinal cord space. The “slipped disc” can occur on any part of the spine, but a majority of cases target the middle of the back.
Small- and medium-sized dogs are most affected by Type 1 disc disease. Unlike Type 2 disc disease which often affects older dogs, Type 1 often affects dogs between the ages of 3 and 6. The condition can be brought on by sudden impact to the spine (i.e. impact from jumping off a bed or sofa) that bursts the intervertebral disc.
Type 2 disc disease occurs when the outer layer of the intervertebral disc (annulus fibrosis) bulges and enters the spinal cord space. This spinal cord compression can happen slowly over time and may not cause pain right away. Older mid- and large-sized dogs are most affected by Type 2 disc disease.
All dogs grow more susceptible to back problems as they age, including non-chondrodystrophic breeds. Over time, intervertebral discs can degenerate and/or calcify (harden). This reduces disc and back flexibility and increases the risk of serious injury. Recall that Type 2 IVDD is largely age-related and can happen slowly over time, resulting in few symptoms at first.
Certain breeds are more genetically at risk of IVDD due to their skeletal structure. Chondrodystrophic breeds, most known as dogs with short legs and long backs (but not always), are most susceptible to prematurely aged disks. These breeds tend to have bone and cartilage abnormalities and include: dachshunds, bulldogs, basset hounds, beagles, corgis, cocker spaniels, pekingese, shih-tzus and even poodles.
Whether chondrodystrophic or not, obesity significantly increases the risk that a dog will develop IVDD or other back problems.
Sudden trauma to the back, even jumping off a bed or sofa “wrong”, can cause an already weakened (degenerated or calcified) intervertebral disk to bulge or burst.
While it is important to follow the below steps to help prevent IVDD in your dog, remember that sometimes IVDD unfortunately just happens. With that said, these precautions will definitely help reduce the likelihood of a disc disorder in your dog:
So many IVDD cases result from 'normal' day-to-day activity. Several of our doxie friends mentioned their pup suddenly got IVDD after jumping off an arm chair and landing "wrong".
While some dogs are born jumpers, it's best to limit jumping for those dogs that are at increased risk of IVDD (particularly chondrodystrophic breeds, senior dogs, and pups that have already experienced IVDD). Sudden shock to a dog's back, especially from jumping down, will put extra stress on a dog's spine.
Not sure how to limit your dog's jumping? Consider investing in a high quality pet ramp or pet stairs if your dog is able to jump on and off furniture including beds and sofas.
Whether chondrodystrophic or not, obesity significantly increases the risk that a dog will develop IVDD. Extra weight puts unnecessary strain on the spine and also increases the risk of intervertebral disk calcification.
Strong bones and good muscle tone are incredibly important in the fight against IVDD. A nutritious dog food high in protein (meat should be the first ingredient) will help maintain your dog’s weight and strength and reduce the risk of IVDD.
The question of which is better to prevent IVDD—a high quality dog harness or a collar—is widely debated. Dogs that already experienced cervical (neck) IVDD would do better in a harness. For other dogs, harnesses may actually encourage pulling, straining and jerking while on a leash. No matter what your dog is wearing, pulling and straining increases the risk of IVDD.
The most important thing you can do is teach your dog to walk nicely on a leash without pulling. This is obviously much easier said than done. Django is 3 and very well-trained, but he still has moments where he pulls on the leash like a sled dog (especially when he's excited!).
The best thing to do is regularly train your dog to heel, or walk in sync with you just alongside your left leg. Django is 3 and we still practice heeling on the busy NYC sidewalks every week. It never hurts to remind your dog, no matter what his or her age, how to walk without pulling ahead.
Chondrodystrophic breeds genetically have sensitive backs. For this reason, it is incredibly important to "support the butt” whenever lifting your dog. It’s advised to never lift a dog by putting your hands beneath the front arms (i.e. lifting your pup like a human baby), as this will put stress on the spine.
So how should you pick up your IVDD-prone dog? Put one hand beneath the dog’s chest and cup your other hand around the dog’s tail and butt. Lift both arms together, ensuring the dog’s back remains straight. Make sure to place your dog back on the ground this same way, supporting both ends and keeping him or her horizontal.
Just remember, keep your dog horizontal and SUPPORT THE BUTT :)
Dachshunds and other chondrodystrophic breeds are by no means fragile. Dachshunds of course are muscular little dogs bred to hunt badgers and other woodland game! With that said, it’s always a good idea to avoid play or activity that can cause unnecessary strain or twisting of your dog’s back. Avoid extreme rough housing and any “jumping” motions that could stress your pup’s back.
Intervertebral disc disease can result in one or several symptoms. The symptoms can come on suddenly or appear gradually over time.
If your dog is displaying signs and symptoms of IVDD, please call your vet immediately. Assuming IVDD is indeed the culprit, have your vet immediately recommend a neurologist and arrange an appointment with this new doctor. Time is of the essence—the sooner you diagnosis IVDD, the greater the probability of a full recovery via strict crate rest and/or spinal surgery.
Dogs diagnosed with minor IVDD—when there is very little loss of control of the back legs, if any—can sometimes make a full recovery without surgery. Your dog's neurologist may recommend 6-8 weeks of crate rest, basic at-home rehabilitation exercises, physical therapy, and hydrotherapy (water therapy).
While the idea of no surgery sounds ideal for your dog, unfortunately there is a high probability that IVDD will occur again in your dog’s life. By not removing the intervertebral disc material that has entered your dog’s spinal cord space, there is a strong probability that the same disc material will pose a problem again later in life.
Time absolutely matters with canine IVDD. The sooner you diagnosis your dog's IVDD, the greater the probability of a full recovery via spinal surgery. According to Veterinary Surgical Centers (VSC), "surgery is successful in the majority of dogs with acute disc herniations (success rate of approximately 90 percent in dogs who still feel their toes)." In other words, most dogs with minor IVDD can see a complete recovery with surgery. This means they'll be back to walking, running and playing like they were before the condition struck.
Dogs with chronic IVDD may also benefit from IVDD surgery, but they are unfortunately less likely to see a full recovery. A bulging or burst intervertebral disc that goes unaddressed can put consistent pressure on the dog's spinal cord. Such spinal cord compression can eventually cause permanent nerve damage or paralysis that cannot be reversed.
The goal of IVDD surgery is to remove the ruptured or bulging intervertebral disc so that it never poses a problem again. In some cases, a neurologist may also recommend removing another suspect disc during the same operation.
So what does IVDD surgery entail? According to VSC, "The most common surgery done to remove disc material from around the spinal cord is called a laminectomy. The spine is approached through an incision in the middle of the back and using a special drill, a window is made in the bone of the vertebra immediately above the disc. The disc material underneath the spinal cord can then be gently removed."
Recovery will vary from dog to dog, but your pup will likely stay in the hospital for a few nights after surgery for monitoring. Once your dog is home, expect an average 6 weeks of crate rest. Crate rest means your dog will be restricted to his or her crate with the exception of bathroom breaks.
Your neurologist will also recommend at-home rehabilitation exercises. Rehabilitation exercises are extremely important during the recovery period and usually start immediately after surgery. These exercises are likely to include massages, gentle stretches, resistance exercises, and assisted walking. Other exercises such as hydrotherapy (water therapy) are also often recommended to assist in recovery.
The average cost of IVDD surgery ranges and depends on geographic location and surgery complexity. IVDD surgery costs can range anywhere from USD 6,000 to 12,000 for small or medium dogs and as much as USD 8,000 to 14,000 for large dogs.
Keep in mind that your total IVDD bill will include both surgical and non-surgical items related to your dog's care and hospital stay. The cost of imaging scans, anesthesia, pain killers and other medications, the length of your dog's hospital stay—all of these items will likely be put on one invoice and billed simultaneously. In fact, most animal hospitals that perform IVDD surgery will require that you pay a significant deposit upfront, i.e. 30% of your dog's total expected bill.
In order to determine if surgery is needed, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan will be done first to locate the intervertebral disc(s) in question. Canine MRIs can cost as much as USD 1,500 to 3,000 in the United States. Again, prices will vary based on several factors including your geographic area.
We'd love to hear from you and learn from your own IVDD experiences. Leave a question below or share your IVDD experience with the DJANGO community.
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