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Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) in Dogs

If your dog has just been diagnosed with IVDD or intervertebral disc disease, you're not alone as this debilitating condition not only affects one in four Dachshunds but is also seen in other dog breeds. 

The costs associated with urgent spinal surgery are approximately $7,000-$10,000 so planning ahead is key and securing pet insurance at an early age (before any pre-existing conditions are recorded) is strongly recommended. 

So what is IVDD?

It is a genetic disorder that causes a disease process in the intervertebral discs of the spine. What happens over time is that the consistency, which normally has a high water content, begins to dehydrate and is replaced with cartilage and minerals such as calcium. It’s actually the genetics of the short legs, not the long backs of dachshunds, that pre-disposes them to IVDD. 

It’s difficult to ascertain whether your dog will be affected by this genetic disease but typically signs appear when dogs are between 3 and 8 years old. However, they are not ever immune irrespective of their age. 

When it comes to IVDD, prevention is better than cure 

The intervertebral discs sit between the vertebrae (bones) and act as shock absorbers. 

The vertebral spine is made up of 7 vertebrae in the cervical neck region, 13 in the middle thoracic section and another 7 in the lower lumbar back region. In between nearly all those are the intervertebral discs. 

IVDD can occur in all areas of the vertebral column and is commonly seen occurring in the thoracic and lower lumbar region but many dogs also suffer from the condition in the cervical (neck) region. 

Discs have a soft centre, like a jelly cushion. It is a viscous gel, a bit like jam in the middle of a doughnut, which is called the nucleus pulposus (nucleus). Surrounding this, is a fibrous ring which is a bit like a hard tough outer shell, and it is called the annulus fibrosus

The nucleus (the soft gel like centre) is made up of about 80% water, which acts as a cushion when natural forces through movement occurs. It stretches and compresses and acts like a shock absorber between all the vertebrae in the spine with normal movement. 

The annulus (outer shell) restricts the expansion of the nucleus and provides stability to the spine during any movement or bending of the spine. 

How is IVDD categorised? 

Disc Disease IVDD was first categorised by Hansen in 1952. It was categorised into Type 1 and Type 2 as there are two ways a disc can degenerate. Hansen Type 1 is the type commonly seen in Dachshunds. 

Breeds such as Dachshunds are termed chondrodysplastic and have gene mutation which causes abnormal cartilage production and leads to their characteristic body shape (i.e. short-legged bendy-legged dogs). Other chondrodystrophic breeds affected include the Maltese Terrier, Shih Tzu, Pekingese, Basset, Beagle, Corgi and some Spaniel breeds. Non-chondrodystrophic breeds that are commonly affected by IVDD include German ShepherdsLabrador Retrievers and Doberman Pinschers. Obese dogs of predisposed breeds are especially likely to suffer from IVDD.

Recognising the Signs and Symptoms of IVDD

If your dog is paralysed or walking in an odd manner, there is a chance that he could be experiencing an episode of IVDD and may require urgent medical attention. You should immediately crate your dog to restrict movement (to prevent further injury) and head to your vet or nearest emergency clinic. 

Typical early symptoms are:
  • A reluctance to move and go about daily activities
  • Unusually quiet or withdrawn
  • Trembling, shaking, crying and / or yelping
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Avoids a full body shake
  • Hunched back
  • Limping or walking unusually
  • Head held high or low with a stiff neck
  • Any form of lameless in the front legs, lifting head forward and hanging it low

As damage to the spinal cord increases, your dog’s symptoms may worsen: 

  • Spasms in the neck muscles
  • Severe Pain
  • "Drunk" walking"
  • Cannot stand or wag tail
If your dog cannot stand on his own or bear weight on his back legs and he cannot wag his tail, he has reached a critical stage and paralysis may be imminent. Paralysis or “drunk” walking is a medical emergency – whether your dog is a candidate for surgery or not, upon the onset of an episode of IVDD all dogs require urgent medical attention for pain management and a full diagnosis. 

  • Loss of bowel control and cannot urinate
  • No interest in food
  • Has no "deep pain sensation"
This will be determined by a veterinarian – “deep pain sensation” is a vital nerve function. It is crucial that any dog displaying any signs or symptoms of IVDD be urgently referred to and assessed by a specialist vet who can accurately assess the grading of IVDD. 

IVDD Diagnosis and Prognosis   

It helps immensely for owners to know that they can put an appropriate management plan in place whether it be conservative or surgical care for the management of their dog's IVDD.

For dogs at grade 1, conservative (non-surgical) treatment is often a sensible first choice, although surgery may be indicated if the pain is unresponsive to conservative therapy. For dogs at grades 2 and higher, surgical treatment gives a better chance of a successful outcome and a markedly reduced chance of relapse.

Although over 80% of dogs treated via conservative means can respond to treatment, the recurrence rate is high, meaning only around half of them have long term improvement or resolution of clinical signs. The prognosis is also highly dependent on the severity of presenting signs.

For dogs treated surgically, over 90% of those with intact deep pain sensation will have a successful outcome. The absence of deep pain is a negative indicator, with only 50-70% of these dogs recovering the ability to walk and urinate voluntarily.

What if your dog needs IVDD surgery?

Following a specialist veterinary surgeon's neurological assessment, surgery may be deemed the best course of action to get your dog back on all four paws and walking again in the future. 

Surgery involves removal of the compressive disc material to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord. A window is then typically created in the ruptured disc to remove any remaining disc material that helps in preventing further disc extrusion at this site.

Recovery time will depend on each individual and your specialist surgeon will guide you on how long they need to remain under close supervision.
Get your dog used to a crate from an early age should they require prolonged confinement in the future.

Crate rest during the first few weeks after surgery is critical to ensure full recovery. Experts recommend you enlist (within 48 hours of surgery) the help of a rehabilitation centre so that your dog’s rehab is supervised by a (qualified) canine physiotherapist.

ARH Brisbane - Mildred’s story

Dr. Lance Wilson is a specialist surgeon at the Animal Referral Hospital in Brisbane who unfortunately sees a number of dogs every week with Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD).
Dr Lance Wilson examines Mildred after her surgery
Mildred’s owners, Hugh and Sandra from Meadowbrook, had noticed some slight wobbliness in her back legs for a couple of weeks. When it worsened over a 2-day period they ended up at the 24 hour emergency hospital on a Sunday evening.

At this point Mildred had back pain and hind limb weakness and wobbliness. She was assessed as a grade 2 IVDD case and admitted for overnight stay. By 8am the next morning she had deteriorated to a grade 3.

A CT scan was performed that demonstrated a large disc extrusion, causing approximately 60% compression of the spinal cord. Mildred was immediately taken to surgery, where a hemilaminectomy was performed to allow removal of the disc material and subsequent decompression of the spinal cord.

Impressively, Mildred was up and walking by herself the next day and was sent home three days later. She is now on eight weeks of strict crate rest, which means she can only leave the crate to be carried to the toilet. Physiotherapy exercises have also been commenced.

Mildred’s owners report she is doing very well at home. She will be back in for a recheck at eight weeks and then returned to the care of her local vet.

Lifestyle & Prevention Advice to reduce the risk

The first question a concerned dog owner will ask “Is there anything I can do to prevent the occurrence of an episode of IVDD?” The answer to this, since IVDD is a genetic disease, is essentially no. However, there are some easy measures you can take that may help reduce the risk.

#1. Weight and Body Condition

Excess weight can cause unnecessary strain and pressure on your dog’s back so ensure there’s a definite waist and shape from above. Your Dachshund’s weight can be easily maintained with a fresh and varied diet.

#2. Stop or limit jumping

Ramps may help discourage your dog from leaping from furniture and baby gates easily restrict access to stairs. 

Limit your dog from crawling into tight spaces and under lowline furniture as additional pressure can cause back injuries.

If you have slippery floors then invest in rugs, floor mats, dog boots and/or toe grips etc. to provide your dog with some added traction and protection against injury. Ensuring your dog’s nails are cut short can also assist against slipping.

#3. Walking using a Harness or a Collar

There has always been a debate about whether walking your dog using a harness and lead is better than using a collar and lead. If you have a fit and healthy dachshund, then it doesn’t really matter however it’s essential to teach them to walk to heel without pulling ahead of you.

The pulling and jerking is what actually puts added strain on their whole spines. It is worth investing in training to learn to walk your dog on a loose lead so that you can avoid this issue.

IVDD Screening and latest research

Currently there is no cure for this disease. However, a significant amount of research has been carried out in Scandinavia, which has identified that there is a strong correlation between mineralisation of the discs and IVDD.

This was particularly identified when dogs were screened once they reached maturity, between the ages of 2-4 years. It is after the age of 2 that mineralisation of the discs can be clearly seen on x-rays. However, the interpretation for scoring must be interpreted by a specialist.

The great news for Australian breeders is that Australian Diagnostic Imaging Specialist, Dr Alana Rosenblatt, based at The University of Queensland (Gatton) can interpret the scoring.

If you are looking to purchase a puppy from a breeder, please do your research and ask the prospective breeders if they know of an incidence of IVDD in their bloodlines. Given we know it’s highly heritable, it’s worth having this conversation with them. Perhaps ask them if they are involved in the X-ray screening program for IVDD?

The primary focus of Dachshund IVDD Support Australia is to empower dog owners with the knowledge to understand IVDD and the best ways to prevent and rehabilitate. Their website offers links to detailed resources and you may also want to join their Facebook group for additional support.

The IVDD Assist program helps struggling owners of IVDD affected Dachshunds by gifting IVDD aids or similar.
If you’d like to help them give a struggling family and their Dachshund a leg up, please visit

We thank Dr. Lance Wilson and Kirsten Wilson from the Animal Referral Hospital Brisbane and Dachshund IVDD Support Australia for their assistance with this article.

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