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  • Writer's pictureCuyamaca Animal Hospital

Intervertebral Disk Disease: Causes, Signs, and Treatments for Pets

For Cuyamaca Animal Hospital, no condition or procedure is too big or small. We pride ourselves on providing some of the most complex procedures (or treating some of the more rare conditions) for the San Diego pet community. But we also strive to make materials and resources widely available so that whatever challenges you or your pet faces, you will be well-prepared.

dog with bad back - disk disease in dogs and cats | Cuyamaca Animal Hospital | Santee, San Diego

One of these more complex cases we see in animals is Intervertebral Disk Disease (IVDD), which is rare in cats but actually quite common in dogs. But first…

What is an Intervertebral Disk?

The backbone (or spine) is made of many bones called vertebrae that house and protect the spinal cord and allow for flexibility in the back. The vertebrae are connected by joints called intervertebral disks, which serve as a cushion between the vertebrae. It consists of a fibrous outer shell, a jelly-like interior, and cartilage caps on each side connecting it to the vertebral bones. Ligaments run below and above the discs, with the ligament above the discs being particularly rich in sensitive nerves.

There are seven cervical (neck) vertebrae, 13 thoracic (chest) vertebrae, 7 lumbar vertebrae, 3 sacral vertebrae, and a variable number of tail vertebrae. IVDD happens when the disc that sits between two vertebrae to absorb movement deteriorates and presses the spinal cord. These structures also can undergo changes that can cause IVDD.

Type I and Type II Disk Disease

There are two types of diseases that can cause the disk to press painfully against the spinal cord: Hansen Type I Disk Disease and Hansen Type II Disk Disease.

  • Type I: The central region mineralizes and a wrong jump by the patient (usually a dog) causes the rock-like disk material to shoot upward, which presses painfully on the ligament above. This can potentially cause compression of the spinal cord in addition to pain. This type of disease is most common in young dogs with short legs and long backs like dachunds, but can occur in other breeds as well.

  • Type II: This type is a much slower degenerative process. The outer region collapses and protrudes upward, creating a more chronic problem with pain and spinal cord compression. This type occurs more commonly in older dogs, with german shepherds being predisposed.

Signs and Symptoms of IVDD

Because pet parents are so often aware of abnormal or atypical behavior in their furry companions, IVDD should be fairly easy to detect. Pets experiencing IVDD will demonstrate difficulty moving or shaking as they normally do. They may also show a decrease in barking, whining, and crying--all signs of pain. You should also take note when your pets are sensitive to touch, showing difficulty with walking, or demonstrating a hunched back, muscle spasms, or paw-dragging when walking. The most common sign is crying when picked up & reluctance to jump.

Look out for these other common IVDD symptoms:

  • Reduced activity

  • Reluctance to go up stairs or standing

  • Wobbling

  • Weakness and/or incoordination

  • Whimpering or crying when moving or being pet

  • Incontinence

  • Lack of appetite

  • Paralysis (a severe symptom of untreated IVDD)

Treatment for IVDD

Once we diagnose IVDD, a decision must be made to pursue medical or surgical management. Spinal surgery is very expensive and requires a long recovery period but may give your pet the best chance to regain normal functionality. Here are just a few of many guidelines that we at Cuyamaca will evaluate with you and your pet:

  • If the dog is paralyzed, surgery affords the best chance at recovery.

  • If the dog is able to walk, medical (non-surgical) treatment is reasonable, depending on the level of pain your pet is experiencing.

  • If the dog cannot walk but deep pain is present in the limbs, there is an 83-90% success rate for recovery with surgery.

The key take-aways for IVDD treatment is that it involves surgical (aggressive) treatment, and medical (conservative) treatment, each with a unique set of requirements for pet parents.

As we mentioned, treatment for IVDD is expensive, especially when you decide that what’s best for your pet is surgery. At Cuyamaca Animal Hospital, we are both grateful and proud of our ability to provide our communities with these complex treatments at a fraction of the cost of other specialty hospitals. We are not just routine veterinarians, but trained professionals in even the more rare services. We believe in accessible and affordable care, and we also believe that diagnoses don’t have to be devastating. When you trust in Cuyamaca Animal Hospital, you are trusting in vets who will do everything to help your pet live the best and happiest lifestyle he or she can live. Call us at (619) 448-0707 and see which treatment is right for your pet.



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