Understanding IVDD, Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs


Dr Andrew

10 Oct 2023

📖 Key Takeaways

  • IVDD is a spinal disease where the discs deteriorate

  • The deterioration can lead to rupture or prolapse of the discs

  • Chondrodystrophic dogs (Dachshunds, Sealyhams, Bassets) are more prone to ‘Type 1’ disease

  • Older larger breed dogs like German Shepherds and Border collies are more prone to ‘Type 2’ disease

  • Fetch covers IVDD as long as it isn’t a pre-existing condition

IVDD, what actually is IVDD?

IVDD means ‘intervertebral disc disease’. There are two types, which are called Hansen Type 1, and Hansen Type 2.

In Type 1 disease, the inner part of the disc (which is called the nucleus pulposus) which is normally soft and jelly like becomes calcified (hard and crumbly) making it more prone to rupture. This leads to pressure on the spinal cord as the damaged centre can move from where it’s supposed to be and push on the spine.

In Type 2 disease, the outer part of the disc is the problem - it slowly deteriorates (usually with age) and then becomes prone to bulging, allowing it to press onto the spinal cord - sometimes a part of it can even become detached, potentially leading to bleeding and swelling and further pressure. Type 2 can be slower onset than Type 1, but there aren't really any rules, and the different versions can look the same.

Which dogs are at risk of IVDD?

Type 1 is common in younger (and smaller) ‘chondrodystrophic dogs’ like Dachshunds, Sealyhams, Bassets.

Type 2 is common in middle aged dogs, medium to large breeds such as German Shepherds and Border Collies.

What is a Chondrodystrophic Breed?

Chondrodystrophic breeds are those breeds which have abnormal cartilage formation, which is what gives them their distinctive ‘short leg, long back’ shape. It also correlates with the more rapid deterioration of the disc seen in Type 1 disease, which is why those Type 1 issues affect younger dogs.

What are the signs of IVDD?

Sometimes disc disease might be discovered accidentally. So, for example, your dog is in for hip X rays, but the vet spots some calcification in the discs (calcification can show up on X rays). Unfortunately, what’s more likely is that a disc starts to press on the spine. Depending on the type and and its seriousness, that can cause symptoms ranging from pain and a hunched back, through to weakness and wobbliness, right up to paralysis. Symptoms can progress as the disc presses on the spine, so if you think a sore back is getting worse - get it checked!

Dachshund Fetch Covers IVDD
Dachshund Fetch Covers IVDD
Dachshund Fetch Covers IVDD

Fetch covers IVDD

Fetch sees IVDD as an illness and treat it the same as any other illness. That’s because the cause is the deterioration of the spinal discs. We cover IVDDs long as it is not a pre-existing condition.

How is IVDD diagnosed and treated?

Vets generally use X rays (sometimes with special contrast material), MRI and CT scans to see exactly what’s going on - for example to see how compressed the disc is to the spine, and the number of discs affected. This will help them in making their recommendation to you based on the signs your dog is showing, and what they can see in the spine.

Treatment depends on how the spine is affected. Minor cases - for example those just showing a consistent level of pain and no loss of nerve function may be able to be managed with strict rest and medication. Strict rest is likely to mean several weeks cage rest, and strict means strict! Your vet will advise based on severity.

Cases with changed nerve function (i.e. those that are weak, wobbly or can’t stand and walk), especially those with no pain perception, are more likely to need surgery to decompress the spine. This could involve removal of the middle of the disc in situ (usually mild cases, or for making sure adjacent discs do not rupture), or even going close to the spine to remove debris and the remnants of a disc directly. The approach depends on the severity of the compression.

How bad can this get?

Depends on the degree of spinal compression and the speed of treatment. Those with significant compression and no pain perception are not as likely to make a recovery as those with milder signs. That's why you should always see a vet quickly if you think something is wrong with your dog’s spine.

Is spinal treatment expensive?

It can depend on the treatment required. Mild cases that just need rest and medication are obviously cheaper to treat but still requires lots of commitment and care, and more serious spinal operations can easily cost up to $10k. Remember that it might not just be scans and an operation - there can also be intensive nursing before and after the operation, and ongoing rehabilitation following the operation that adds up over time.

Dachshund Puppy Fetch Covers IVDD
Dachshund Puppy Fetch Covers IVDD
Dachshund Puppy Fetch Covers IVDD

How long do dogs take to recover from spinal surgery?

It really depends on the severity of the issue. Dogs usually go home once they can urinate by themselves, but sometimes vets will show you how to assist with this process. If your dog has paralysis, it can take several weeks to improve. During that time, they will need help walking and a lot of support to make sure they don’t put unnecessary pressure on their spine. Physio to assist in recovery is also common - your vet will advise on the best things to do to help with recovery.

What do we do if our dog does not recover from spinal surgery?

It’s an outcome you should discuss with your vet - there are mobility supports you can try, and regular care and physio can help build core strength and keep paralysed limbs as healthy as they can be, but it’s really a decision you should make with your vet.

Is there anything I can do to reduce the chances of IVDD?

In chondrodystrophic breeds there’s likely to be increased risk because of their body shape. There are loads of advice out there and here’s a few things which could help:

  • Weight - this is #1. Stay a healthy weight. Speak to your vet if you don’t know what that is, but you should be able to just feel ribs and your pet should have some definition (shape!) to their waist.

  • Harness vs collar - Trick question… Not pulling on the lead is the best answer here, so training is the answer!!! That said, some prefer harnesses as the force on the spine is more linear than with a collar. Remember not to jolt and pull on a lead, too.

  • Exercise and jumping - There’s lots of conflicting advice about stairs, sofas, and sand out there, so we generally take fewer chances if we can. That said, the key thing is that your dog is active and exercises regularly so they are fit and have good muscle tone - because exercise is more likely to injure when you're not used to regular activity.