Is your pet experiencing back pain or difficulty walking?

Posted December 26, 2014 in Articles

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD, “slipped disc”) is the most common cause of spinal pain and difficulty walking (ataxia) in dogs. Two types of disc disease exist – type I and type II. 


In type I IVDD, the disc degenerates and suddenly herniates upward into the spinal cord, resulting in pain and often in weakness or even paralysis. The mid-back is the most commonly affected site, resulting in back pain and hind limb weakness. Herniated discs can also occur in the neck, with resultant neck pain and weakness in all limbs.

The breed most commonly affected by IVDD is the Dachshund, with 1 out of 5 dachshunds developing signs of a disc extrusion/herniation in their lifetime. Most dogs are middle-aged when they develop signs of IVDD, but dogs as young as 1 year of age can be affected. While small breed dogs (especially those known as “chondrodystrophic” breeds) are more commonly affected by type I IVDD, large breeds such as German Shepherds, Labs, and Dobermans are also at risk. Cats and ferrets also get intervertebral disc disease, but at a much lower incidence than in dogs – the treatment in these species is similar to that in dogs.

While dogs with IVDD can become unable to walk or even paralyzed, the outlook can be very good as long as treatment is initiated immediately.  For those dogs who are unable to walk, surgery is recommended to remove the disc material pressing on the spinal cord.  An MRI or CT is done before surgery to confirm the diagnosis and to help plan surgery. If surgery is performed before a dog loses feeling to their toes (“deep pain”), there is an 85-90% chance that they will regain the ability to walk.  For the most severely affected dogs, in whom deep pain is lost, timely surgery is still able to restore function in half of patients.  If surgery is delayed for over 48 hours after deep pain is lost, however, the success rate with surgery falls to 5%. 

For dogs who are less severely affected, or in cases in which surgery is not an option, recovery is still possible with several weeks of strict crate rest (6-8 weeks of rest are typically recommended). STRICT is the key word! Dogs should be in a crate 23.5 hours a day – only going out for 2-3 minute leash walks in the yard a few times a day. Pain medications are usually prescribed to these patients to keep them comfortable during the recovery period. In some patients, anti-inflammatory steroids may also be prescribed – these medications have risks and have no proven efficacy in dogs with disc disease, however, so they are no longer recommended as a first-line therapy for patients with spinal disease.  


In Type II IVDD, the progression of signs is often more prolonged, as the underlying cause is a gradual bulge of the intervertebral disc into the spinal canal rather than a sudden extrusion.  Unlike dogs with type I IVDD, dogs with type II IVDD are often not painful due to the slow nature of the disc protrusion.

In contrary to type I IVDD, large breed dogs such as German Shepherds and Dobermans are the most common breeds affected by type II disease.  Dogs with type II IVDD also tend to be older, often 8-10 years of age.

Treatment of type II IVDD is similar to type I; however, the outcome of surgery is less predictable.


There is no way to guarantee that your pet will not experience IVDD in his/her lifetime. Keeping your pet trim definitely helps lessen the strain placed on the spine, and avoiding jarring activities such as jumping off of high furniture may help, but some dogs in perfect condition will still experience a slipped disc despite every precaution.

If you or your veterinarian is concerned that your pet may have disc disease, please contact us at 603-782-8181 to schedule an appointment with Dr. Jones.