Intervertebral disks are the “cushions” in the space between spinal vertebrae. These disks are subject to a number of degenerative conditions and forces that predispose them to bulge or rupture over time. This rupture leads to damage to the spinal cord. Intervertebral disk disease (IVDD) is the most common cause of spinal cord injury in dogs.  With proper attention, many dogs with this painful and debilitating condition can recover to a comfortable and more active lifestyle. IVDD is most common in short-legged breeds (dachsunds, beagles, etc.) These dogs have been bred for their short stature, which makes them more prone to degeneration and hardening of the soft center material of the disk that normally serves as a shock absorber (Fig. 1). Without this cushioning, rupture of the disk and subsequent spinal cord trauma occur (Fig. 2). The two most common locations of IVDD are thoracolumbar (mid-spine) and cervical (neck). Dogs with spinal IVDD usually have neurological dysfunction (weakness, inability to walk, etc.) and pain. Dogs with cervical IVDD often have severe pain alone.

Intervertebral Disk Disease (IVDD) and Treatment in Dogs

How we Pinpoint and Localize the Problem

The symptoms you report in your dog as well as our physical examination help us localize the IVDD to certain areas of the spine.

  • Cervical IVDD patients usually have a history of painful behavior accompanied by crying out without apparent reason. Less frequently, they will have forelimb lameness caused by a pinched nerve.  Pain in the neck when moved or touched, a tense neck, limb weakness and wobbly gait can all present on examination.
  • Spinal IVDD patients can present with sudden or progressive rear limb weakness. The severity of the symptoms varies from mild weakness to complete paralysis with an inability to feel pain in the affected limbs.

The Treatments for Canine Intervertebral Disk Disease

Treatment varies with the type of symptoms present. Oral anti-inflammatory medications and cage rest are reserved for dogs with mild signs, and often result in improvement within 48 hours.  Cervical IVDD patients with even mild neurological dysfunction are considered surgical candidates. Myelography and surgery are indicated for all dogs that have failed to respond to medication, and for those that have more severe or progressive symptoms.  Surgery involves creating a small window in the bone around the spinal cord to gain access to the disk material.  The material is removed, relieving the spinal cord compression and allowing healing to take place.

Surgery is effective at relieving pain, eliminating spinal cord compression, and maximizing chances for patient recovery. MedVet surgeons work in conjunction with your family veterinarian to determine the most effective care if your pet suffers from disk problems. We successfully treat hundreds of these patients annually with very positive results.

Frequently Asked Questions About Intervertebral Disk Disease in Dogs

What is the success rate of these surgeries?

Prognosis for patients with pain alone from cervical IVDD is very good, with a >80% chance of elimination of pain and return to an active lifestyle. The prognosis for spinal IVDD patients depends on the symptoms present.  Weak or paralyzed patients have a very good chance of recovery with surgery, most dogs showing dramatic improvement within the first few weeks of the procedure. Dogs that are both paralyzed and cannot feel their legs have more severe spinal cord trauma and may have a more limited capacity to heal. Prognosis for these patients is discussed on a case-by­case basis.

What are the potential complications with these surgeries?

Overall complication rates are low. A minority of dogs will experience “seizure-like” activity immediately upon recovery from surgery as a reaction to the liquid injected during the myelogram. These reactions are not uncommon, and are completely responsive to Valium.  All patients are closely monitored for such reactions. Any other potential complications specific to your dog’s neurological status will be discussed with you at the time of your consultation.

How long will my dog be hospitalized after surgery?

The length of stay will be determined based on your pet’s postoperative comfort and neurological function. You will be updated frequently on your dog’s progress while they are hospitalized. Our goal is to get your dog home as soon as possible, without sacrificing any of their care.

What is the aftercare like after surgery? 

Aftercare generally involves about four weeks of activity restriction, meaning no off-leash activity. Additional care will be determined based on your pet’s neurological function. Some will require help walking and urinating, while others will require medications and aggressive physical rehabilitation. The particular requirements for your dog will be explained and demonstrated thoroughly during their discharge from MedVet.

Do I have to bring my dog back for a check up?

Yes.  Assessing the progress of a patient recovering from spinal surgery is an important part of the overall treatment plan. Most patients are re-evaluated at MedVet four weeks following surgery; but more frequent rechecks may be recommended for some patients. This too will be discussed with you during your dog’s discharge.

Is physical rehabilitation going to be important after spinal surgery?

Proper physical rehabilitation is particularly important in patients with neurological injuries/disorders. When your pet is discharged, some basic at-home rehabilitation exercises will be illustrated for you. A variety of different postoperative rehabilitative treatments are also available at MedVet to help speed recovery and improve overall result of surgery.