Intervertebral Disc Disease in Pets

Intervertebral Disc Disease in Pets

The intervertebral discs in pets can succumb to several forces and conditions that will cause them to rupture or swell over time. When this rupture occurs, this leads to two kinds of damage to the spinal cord: concussion and compression. The extent of the damage and loss of nerve cells is determined by the type of force, the degree of force applied to the spinal cord and how long the force was applied.

Minor damage to the spinal cord can lead to a loss of coordination and a stumbling gait in the affected pet. More significant damage may lead to the pet’s inability to move their legs voluntarily or lead to their loss of walking. Severe damage can lead to an entire loss of pain sensation. Depending on the duration that pain perception has been lost, this can carry a very poor prognosis for recovery.

Which Dogs Does this Condition Affect the Most?

Chondrodystrophoid dogs account for the highest majority of disc ruptures. These dogs include:

• Pekinese
• Beagle
• Lhasa Apso
• Dachshund (Dachshunds account for 45–70 percent of all cases)

For these dogs, the average age where clinical signs are observed are between three and six years old, however, x-rays can show the presence of disc calcification by two years of age.

For nonchondrodystrophoid dogs (Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, etc.), they present between five and 12 years old. Thoracolumbar (back area) discs account for 65 percent of disc ruptures, while cervical (neck area) account for up to 18 percent of cases.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Intervertebral Disc Disease?

There are different degrees of pain with disc ruptures, however, once nerve damage progresses and develops, it usually follows this pattern:

• Neck or back pain, refusal to walk
• Wobbly gait in the back legs
• Complete loss of hind limb motor functions
• Loss of ability to urinate and to empty the bladder completely
• Pain perception is lost, which is a sign of a severe cord injury. This can carry a guarded-to-poor prognosis

How is Intervertebral Disc Disease Diagnosed?

The veterinarian will often suggest an initial health screening, along with additional imaging techniques. These include blood work, x-rays, CT scan, MRI and/or a spinal tap at the same time as the imaging.

What Are the Treatment Options for an Intervertebral Disc Disease?

For pets that have recently begun their first episode and who have mild neurological deficits, conservative treatment includes cage rest, confinement and pain medications. Upon further consultation with your veterinarian, they may refer you to a surgeon to discuss more options.

For surgery, there are multiple approaches, depending on the surgeon and the location of the disc. Surgical decompression of the spine by removing the bone over the spinal canal is usually recommended.

After surgery, most pets will be discharged three to seven days following the procedure and are usually returned for a recheck and removal of skin sutures or staples in necessary. Their pain will be controlled with owner-administered medications.

If left untreated, a disc rupture can lead to an animal’s permanent loss of their ability to walk. Dogs that do reach this point will also lose control of their bladder and will be at risk for chronic urinary tract infections and urine scald.


If your pet is experiencing any of the above symptoms or you have further questions about this condition, please contact us at 907-479-0001.