Many people are familiar with nagging, often debilitating, back pain. A tender spot or ache can impact your daily activities, decreasing your ability to complete everyday tasks, including driving. Our pets can also experience painful back problems that affect their ability to walk or eliminate properly, and decrease their overall quality of life. Although our pets easily communicate they are ready for a treat or game of fetch, they are stoic, and you may not recognize when your four-legged family member is suffering from back problems. Dogs’ most common spinal issues are disc-related problems, and cats can also experience this condition. Because pets are skilled at hiding pain signs, recognizing that your dog or cat is experiencing back pain can be challenging. Our Animal Clinic of Council Bluffs team describes intervertebral disc disease and the steps you should take if you suspect your pet has this painful back problem. 

What is intervertebral disc disease in pets?

Your pet’s spine (i.e., backbone) is critical to the support of their overall body movement and weight. In addition, the spine protects spinal cord nerves, which transmit impulses between the brain and the body. The backbone comprises numerous small bones (i.e., vertebrae), which are connected by cushions (i.e., intervertebral discs). These discs are composed of an outer covering (i.e., annulus) and an inner gelatinous portion (i.e., nucleus), providing a cushion and absorbing movement within the spine. Pets commonly experience intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) when one or several intervertebral  discs become herniated (i.e., ruptured). The ruptured disc causes pressure on the spinal cord, which can limit a nerve’s ability to send signals properly to various body parts. Pets with spinal compression may lose the ability to control bodily functions, such as walking. IVDD can affect any pet during any life stage, but some breeds have a genetic predisposition, including dachshunds, French bulldogs, shih tzus, and German shepherd dogs. IVDD’s primary causes include:

  • Type I Progressive mineralization causes a disc’s nucleus to weaken. A sudden impact, such as jumping, can cause this material to burst through the disc’s outer portion, putting pressure on the spinal cord. Small-breed dogs, such as dachshunds, commonly experience type I IVDD. 
  • Type II The annulus (i.e., disc’s outer surface) can degenerate over time, which collapses and protrudes against a pet’s spinal cord. Older, large-breed dogs, such as German shepherd dogs, most commonly experience type II IVDD.

Intervertebral disc disease signs in pets

IVDD signs and severity depend on the disease type, location on the spine, and number of affected vertebrae. When severe, this painful condition can cause paralysis. Because IVDD can occur gradually, you may not recognize when your pet is experiencing partial or less-severe herniations. However, immediately bring your pet for an Animal Clinic of Council Bluffs veterinary examination if your pet is suddenly unable to walk. IVDD signs may include:

  • Abnormal gait
  • Reluctance to jump or climb stairs
  • Panting not associated with exercise
  • Vocalizing or biting when touched
  • Weakness in the hind limbs
  • Decreased appetite
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Reluctance to posture for elimination
  • Hunched back
  • Muscle tenseness or spasms
  • Anxious behavior

Intervertebral disc disease diagnosis in pets

Schedule a veterinary examination if your pet cannot walk or has IVDD signs. Your Animal Clinic of Council Bluffs veterinarian will perform a nose-to-tail examination and neurological assessment to localize the affected spinal cord area, which includes an evaluation of your pet’s reflexes and pain response. IVDD signs can mimic other diseases, so your veterinarian may recommend X-rays to further evaluate your pet’s musculoskeletal health and pinpoint their pain source. To assess the severity of your pet’s IVDD, your veterinarian may also recommend advanced imaging—such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or myelography—which requires sedation or general anesthesia to ensure they remain still and calm during the procedure. 

Intervertebral disc disease treatment in pets

Several factors—including pain severity, disease sign duration, previous treatment response, and your pet’s ability to walk—determine your pet’s IVDD treatment plan. In most cases, your veterinarian will require strict crate rest for several weeks to months to prevent your pet from experiencing further injury or inflammation. Pets who are unable to walk may require surgical treatment. Conservative medical treatments may include:

  • Pain medication
  • Muscle relaxant medication
  • Anti-inflammatory medication
  • Physical therapy

Intervertebral disc disease prevention tips for pets

Because some pets are genetically predisposed to IVDD, the condition cannot always be prevented. However, ensuring your pet maintains a healthy weight helps decrease joint stress, which can cause IVDD. Other prevention tips include:

  • Providing a ramp or stairs to prevent your pet from jumping on or off furniture.
  • Avoiding tug-of-war games, which can cause neck and back stress.
  • Feeding your pet an American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)-approved diet for their age and life stage to ensure they are receiving the nutrients necessary for joint health.
  • Bringing your pet for annual, or more frequent, veterinary examinations to determine their IVDD risk. 

Our Animal Clinic of Council Bluffs team understands your concern when your pet is in pain. Call our office if you have any questions about your pet’s spinal health, or schedule an examination if you suspect they have IVDD. We are here to help ease your pet’s pain.