IVDD in Dogs: Symptoms and Treatment Options

Table of Contents

Summary | What is IVDD | Causes | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Frequently Asked Questions

What You Need to Know About IVDD in Dogs:

The condition called IVDD in dogs (Intervertebral Disc Disease) of the thoracic-lumbar spine or IVDH (Intervertebral Disc Herniation) refers to a condition where bone-on-bone contact is occurring in the vertebrae. As the contact worsens the condition can result in symptoms such as severe pain, a hunched appearance, dragging of the toes, difficulty walking, complete paralysis or the loss of use of one or more legs, or an inability to turn the head. Intervertebral disc disease is a age-related degenerative disease.

When diagnosed IVDD is graded on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 represents the most chronic cases. If treated with spinal surgery, time to recovery is 10, 15 and 30 days in conditions graded 3,4 and 5 respectively In dogs that are managed with medications alone, dogs diagnosed at levels 3,4 and 5 recovered in 63, 84, and 18 days respectively. 

Dogs that cannot walk due to IVDD can walk after using IVDD surgery vs. medications with no surgery. in all dogs, surgery tends to enable dogs to walk faster. Surgical procedures result in 61% of patients having no deep pain in the limbs vs. 90% of patients that are treated with medications alone never walking again.  The use of Glucocorticoids do not improve the treatment outcome.(1)

If your dog is experiencing these types of symptoms contact a veterinarian as soon as possible for an examination. IVDD in dogs is a common spinal disease.

MRI image of a dog with ivddMRI image of dog spin with IVDD lesions

What is IVDD in Dogs?

IVDD ( intervertebral Disc Disease) is the pathology of discs drying out and becoming less functional and more likely to herniate or slip. It is a painful condition that may require you dog to have surgery.

Often used interchangeably with IVDD is IVDH (Intervertebral Disc Herniation). This is the actual cause of compression so the spinal cord causes clinical symptoms. Technically, a diagnosis of IVDD refers to intervertebral discs that could become a future problem. IVDH refers to a condition where a disc (or several discs) are actually causing a problem.

What Causes IVDD?

IVDD is caused by the cartilaginous which keeps the vertebrae in a dog's back from touching each other. This bone-on-bone contact can be painful. The condition is the result of intervertebral discs that are damaged or that have disc degeneration. If the outer surface of the disc degenerates, the soft inner portion spills out and touches the spinal cord. Due to the restricted space in a bone tunnel, the spinal cord can be pinched, leading to neurological issues or pain.

IVDD usually occurs in the lumbar and cervical areas. The location of the problem is correlated with the weight, age, and breed of the dog.

Breeds at Risk

All dogs have progressive herniation because of early degenerative changes in their disc. Degenerated discs result in a decrease in shock resistance but may eventually lead to disc herniation,

Breeds at risk include large breeds and:

  • Basset Hounds
  • Dachshund Lucas Terrier
  • Sealyham
  • Shih Tzu

Symptoms of Intervertebral Disc Disease

In most dogs, the primary IVDD symptom is pain or avoidance of moving the neck or head. A dog might yelp when picked up or look hunched when standing. Some dogs may have an unusual gait, walk on the tops of their feet, or fall and trip often.  Other signs are if your dog looks uncomfortable, the toenails scuff the floor or drag. In some dogs, bowel control can be an issue.

It is possible that a dog that can move and make use of its' legs in the morning is unable to do so in the afternoon.

In advanced cases, a dog may not be able to walk or move its legs.

It is possible that not all legs are affected. Leg use is dependent on how the diseased disc is pressing against the dog's spinal cord causing spinal cord compression. A dog can also have one symptom, such as neck pain, but be able to walk with no problem. 

You might also notice a slow progression where symptoms such as avoidance of walking and pain get worse over time until the point where the dog will not walk at all.  This progression can take days, weeks, or months.


When you take your dog to the veterinarian, he or she will do a thorough examination since the presence of pain can indicate multiple conditions. These include:

  • Cancer
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Infections
  • Soft tissue or spinal cord injury

The veterinarian will take an x-ray, bloodwork and examine the spinal cord with an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). Patients must lie fully still for the ultrasound. This is usually only possible during general anesthesia

It is recommended that large breed dogs have MRI imaging of the entire lumbar and thoracic spine.


There are two treatment options available for dogs with IVDD.

  • Medical: In this approach medications that have anti0-inflammatory properties are used along with others that reduce pain through pain management. A dog is put on restricted activity such as no playing, running, or jumping for 4 to 6 weeks.
  • Surgical: In a surgical option, a surgeon will remove the disk that is causing the spinal pressure. This approach requires four days in the veterinary hospital and then the use of similar medications to those used in the medical treatment option to manage any remaining symptoms.

In general, surgery leads to better results and a reduced chance that the problem will occur again. If your dog is still able to walk, you can try medications first and then move on to surgery if necessary. This is a decision that should be made in consultation with your veterinarian. Surgery can last up to 3 hours depending on the complexity

If a dog is demonstrating a chronic issue such as the loss of use of a leg, then surgery that is initiated within 24 hours of seeing these symptoms has a 90% chance of working and enables a dog to achieve full mobility. The longer the delay between symptom and surgery, the lower the odds of a successful outcome.

Can my dog go home after spinal surgery?

The time spent in a veterinary hospital after back surgery varies from patient to patient depending on the comfort level, functional motion, and urinary ability. When discharged you will have an appointment with a qualified canine physiotherapist. 

Conservative Treatment and Management of IVDD

Is Conservative Treatment an Option?

Conservative control may be used for dogs with pain only or in mild deficits. There's usually a restriction of movement that consists of cage confinement.  Disadvantages of conservative management include a higher rate of recurrence of clinical symptoms and a higher likelihood of deterioration or persistent neurological deficits. 

More conservative approaches to relieving pain and other symptoms caused by  IVDD involve can include physical therapy and physiotherapy. Treatment options include:

  • Laser electrotherapy
  • Soft tissue massage
  • Home exercise programs
  • Hydrotherapy with underwater treadmills


Is Surgery Necessary for Dogs with IVDD?

Surgery may be the most effective method of eliminating symptoms for your dog and increasing mobility. Studies show that dogs that receive surgery that have conditions rated 3, 4, and 5 recover faster than dogs that are treated with medications alone.

What happens to your dog after IVDD surgery?

Postoperative analgesia (painkillers) and supportive therapy will be administered to dogs. Physiotherapy plays a crucial role in the treatment of animals that have spinal cord disorders. Inactivity and recumbency cause diminished joint motion and tenderness as well muscular weakness and contraction. Your pet is assessed by a specialist team of chartered physiotherapists who will design and implement a physiotherapy and rehabilitation program for the rehabilitation of intervertebral disk disease specifically for your pet. 

How can I tell if my dog has intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)?

The most common sign of intervertebral disc disease is discomfort that is localized in the back or neck. Disc diseases in the upper back can cause pain, paralysis, or urinary incontinence. The most serious cases are loss of bladder function and dogs that can no longer feel pain. In more extreme cases, patients often have difficulties walking; ranging from poor control of the hind limbs - either weakness or a ‘drunken ship’ walk - to complete paralysis.