Intervertebral disc disease

Paralyzing back pain in dogs

The most common source is intervertebral disc disease

A dog with a spinal disc problem may avoid turning their head in one direction. They may walk over to their food or water bowls, but then just look at them. However, if you lift one of the bowls up, they will likely eat or drink from that more comfortable position. At times, they may appear to walk with a wobbly gait. It may appear that they are battling weakness in the rear. And if the disc disease is severe, your dog could be paralyzed, unable to get up or use their rear legs at all. Your dog may also be incontinent.

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a common source of back pain in dogs, especially in older dogs but also in younger dogs of predisposed breeds. The severity and type of disc injury can vary widely, ranging from mild discomfort to paralysis.

What IVDD is

When we think of a dog’s spine, most of us picture vertebrae in a chain that makes up the dog’s back bones. Equally as important are the intervertebral discs between the vertebrae. The discs allow your dog to bend, flex and turn, and they cushion the spinal vertebrae. These discs also have a ring of cartilage, with a gel-like core called the nucleus pulposus. That gel core is like the filling of a “sandwich” formed by two cartilage ends.

With age, the discs may calcify, which reduces a dog’s ability to flex and bend. Discs also can get squished due to trauma and rupture, which pushes up the delicate spinal cord. This is often called “disc herniation.” Mild neurological signs or even acute paralysis may be present. The symptoms can vary depending on which discs have a problem.

About 65% of IVDD problems are associated with the thoracolumbar region of the spine (the back), while about 18% are in the neck alone. The rest are a combination of the two areas.


The first step for diagnosis is a thorough physical exam by your veterinarian. This is often all you need for a mild case, although X-rays may be done as well.

For dogs with more than mild pain, a referral to a veterinary neurologist may be recommended. At that point, specialized imaging techniques such as an MRI or CT scan may be done. During diagnostics, your veterinarian will be able to tell if the problem is due to disc degeneration or another issue, such as a cancerous growth.


Mild cases may be managed medically, at least initially. Treatment will include restricted activity, pain medications and possibly muscle relaxants.

If surgery is recommended as a treatment, don’t wait. The longer you wait, the greater the chance the spinal cord will degenerate to the point where it might not recover.

Surgery is an intensive operation. Bone will be removed so that the extruded disc material can be extracted, and pressure taken off the spinal cord.

Dogs who undergo spinal surgery will need crate rest initially, followed by strictly controlled exercise while they heal. Post-surgery dogs may need help going to the bathroom, and they will need to be monitored for pressure sores. Recovery can take months.

“We have been using electroacupuncture for many of our medically managed and post-operative IVDD dogs as augmentative pain control. There is both clinical and research evidence supporting its use in multimodal pain management in these patients,” says Dr. Christopher Frye, assistant clinical professor of sports medicine and rehabilitation in the Department of Clinical Sciences.

As the dog’s recovery progresses, rehabilitation may include laser therapy and underwater treadmill work. Exercises may be prescribed to be done at home, with a gradually increasing program of walks.


It can be difficult to prevent spinal injuries, but you can reduce the odds of it happening. Keep your dog trim and fit. Minimize time spent going up and down stairs, and jumping on and off a deck, bed or sofa. Plan sensible activities. Walking is safe for any dog. Leaping for a thrown toy, not so much. At the first sign of back discomfort, contact your veterinarian.

Dogs with back problems can be in severe pain, so it’s important to be patient when their discomfort manifests in behavioral changes. Even a sweet dog may snap or growl.

Genetic testing and breed tendency

Genetic testing can predict the risks of a disc problem in dogs. About 10% of dogs with two gene copies of the defect will eventually develop a disc problem. Breeders can use this information to plan matings that minimize risk.

The American College of Veterinary Surgeons estimates that Dachshunds alone account for 40 to 75% of all cases of IVDD. These dogs may be clinically affected by 3 to 6 years of age.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.