Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) in dogs


This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Josepha Cox DVM and last updated by Dr Gillian Hill BVSc (Hons 1).

Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) is a spinal condition that can affect dogs and less commonly cats, often causing pain, paralysis, and mobility issues. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for IVDD is crucial for pet owners to ensure their furry friends receive the best possible care.

In this comprehensive guide, we'll delve into the different types of IVDD, how it is diagnosed, and the various treatment approaches available, from conservative management to surgical intervention. We'll also explore the recovery process and prognosis for pets affected by this condition, as well as practical tips to help prevent IVDD in your beloved companions.

Join us as we navigate the complexities of IVDD, providing you with valuable insights and information to help you better understand and manage this challenging condition in your pets.

What is IVDD?
How is Intervertebral Disc Disease diagnosed?
Treatment of IVDD
Recovery and Prognosis
How can IVDD be prevented?

What is intervertebral disc disease?

Intervertebral discs are cushion-like structures between the bones (vertebrae) of the spine. They aid movement, provide support and absorb shock. They are made up of two parts; the annulus fibrosis (fibrous outer ring) and the nucleus pulposus (jelly like interior).

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) occurs when there is degeneration in either the annulus fibrosis or nucleus pulposus which leads to a decreased ability to absorb shock and compression of the spinal cord. The compression is what leads to the visible symptoms of the disease such as pain and difficulty walking.

There are three forms of IVDD: Hansen type I, Hansen type II and Hansen type III.


Hansen type I disease is most commonly seen in small dogs that are two years of age and older. Chrondrodysplastic breeds (those with short legs) such as the Dachshund are classic examples of breeds suffering from type I IVDD.

In type I there is mineralisation of the nucleus pulposus so the normal soft jelly-like centre becomes hard and calcified and as a result is less resistant to strain. When there is sudden movement like a jump or a twist the calcified nucleus pulposus ruptures through the annulus fibrosis. The rupture typically happens in an upward fashion leading to compression of the spinal cord. The force at which the rupture occurs and how much content is ruptured will determine the severity of the injury. This sudden compression on the spinal cord results in pain and varying degrees of paralysis. The parts of the body affected by the paralysis depend on where in the spine the compression is located, so it can be different in each case.


Hansen type II disease is more of a degenerative process and is seen mainly in those aged 5 - 12 years and can occur in cats as well as medium to large breed dogs. In type II the annulus fibrosis becomes weak and balloons upwards onto the spinal cord. This tends to create a more chronic spinal cord compression. Occasionally accompanying the ballooning can be tearing of the annulus which leads to bleeding and these together contribute to the compression and pain. Some pets may present to the vet acutely as with type I but more often than not the symptoms are subtle but progressive. The pet may show a decrease in activity as well as a reluctance to climb stairs, jump or rise from rest. Some dogs or cats may also appear stiff or have a hunched pose.


Hansen type III is when normal, non-diseased nucleus pulposus ruptures through a sudden tear in the annulus fibrosis at high velocity. This usually occurs with trauma or substantial exercise. The resulting injury is usually non-compressive and thus does not tend to lead to permanent injury.

Image via Mission Vet

How is IVDD diagnosed?

Diagnosing IVDD in pets involves a combination of clinical signs, physical examination, and diagnostic imaging. Here's a breakdown of the diagnostic process:

  1. Clinical Signs: Symptoms of IVDD can vary depending on the severity and location of the disc herniation. Common signs include back pain, reluctance to move, stiffness, weakness, and in severe cases, paralysis.
  2. Full Physical and Neurological Examination: Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination, focusing on your pet's neurological status. They will assess your pet's reflexes, muscle strength, and sensation in the affected areas.
  3. Diagnostic Imaging: X-rays are often the first step in imaging to evaluate the spine and rule out other causes of spinal pain. However, X-rays alone may not provide a definitive diagnosis of IVDD, especially for types II and III.
  4. Advanced Imaging: For a more accurate diagnosis, advanced imaging techniques such as MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or CT (Computed Tomography) scans are often necessary. These imaging modalities can provide detailed images of the spinal cord and discs, helping to identify the location and severity of disc herniation.
  5. Myelography: In some cases, a myelogram may be performed, where a contrast dye is injected into the spinal canal to highlight any abnormalities on X-rays or CT scans.
  6. Cerebrospinal Fluid Analysis: In rare cases where there is suspicion of an infection or inflammatory process affecting the spinal cord, a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis may be recommended.
  7. Specialist Neurologist Consultation: In complex cases or when advanced imaging is required, your veterinarian may refer your pet to a veterinary neurologist for further evaluation and management.

How is IVDD treated?

Treatment options include conservative management or surgical intervention. Which one is right for your pet will depend on the severity of the disease.

Conservative Management

Conservative management involves strict rest and crate confinement to allow the spinal cord and associated inflammation to subside. Confinement is usually required for 4-6 weeks and anti-inflammatory pain relief, such as with non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like Meloxicam ('Metacam') or Firocoxib ('Previcox') may also be used during this time. Conservative management is usually best for pet's with pain only or pain and limited neurological effects (ie. still able to walk).

Surgical Management

Surgical intervention aims to relieve compression, prevent further ruptures or both. It is generally used in pets with more severe neurological abnormalities such as paralysis.

Surgery involves removal of the nucleus pulposus through a technique called fenestration. This procedure helps to prevent further disc ruptures. The technique does not deal with any disc material that has already entered the spinal canal. So, if there is lots of disc material remaining in the canal the recovery may be protracted or some neurological effects may remain.

Another surgical technique is decompressive surgery. This is where the spinal canal is accessed by removing or drilling through bone and the ruptured disc material is then directly removed to relieve compression. This surgery is sometimes performed on its own or alongside fenestration.

IVDD Recovery and prognosis

Recovery from surgery usually involves 4-6 weeks of strict rest and confinement. As with conservative management, pain relief will be required. Additional nursing care is also sometimes needed including helping the pet outside to toilet or even manual emptying of their bladder if they are unable to do this themselves.

Regain of functions such as walking depends on how quickly the issue was treated and the severity of the initial injury. Some may recover as quickly as 1-2 weeks post surgery whereas others may take months. Full paralysis and absence of deep pain sensation are poor prognostic factors but these cases, if treated as an emergency can sometimes regain some function. As a general rule maximal improvement post treatment is usually reached by the 3 month mark.

Are there any other options if my pet doesn't regain function?

If your pets hindlimb mobility is affected but they are functional in their forelimbs a customised pet wheelchair may be an option. Your pet's measurements will be taken and an individualised wheelchair will be constructed for them. Some pets adapt to these really well and it can be a great option for maintaining quality of life. Speak to your vet if you are interested in this option.

Can IVDD be prevented?

There are some practical tips which can help to reduce your pets risk:

  • Keep them at a healthy weight. This puts less strain on their neck and back
  • When walking use a harness rather than a collar - this will distribute force evenly over the body rather than concentrated on your pet's neck
  • Use aids such as pet ramps and non-slip surfaces at home to help decrease jumping and slipping. This is especially important for those at risk breeds such as the Dachshund and Corgi
  • Always support your pets whole body when lifting them. It's especially important to teach children how to correctly pick up and hold pets
  • Discuss the age of desexing your pet with your vet. Recent evidence has shown that some breeds such as the Corgi can reduce their risk of IVDD when desexed past a certain age

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Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a challenging condition that can affect our beloved pets, particularly those with specific predispositions such as certain breeds and age groups. Understanding the types of IVDD, its diagnosis, and treatment options is crucial for pet owners to recognize the signs early and seek appropriate veterinary care.

Conservative management, including rest and medication, can be effective for pets with mild symptoms. However, for those with severe neurological deficits, surgical intervention may be necessary to relieve compression and prevent further damage. Recovery from IVDD can vary, with some pets regaining function relatively quickly, while others may require longer periods of rehabilitation.

Prevention plays a significant role in managing IVDD risk. Maintaining a healthy weight, using proper lifting techniques, and providing a safe environment for your pet can help reduce the likelihood of this condition. By staying informed and proactive, pet owners can help their furry friends lead happy, healthy lives free from the challenges of IVDD.

Further Reading

Want to read more? Check out our other articles:

Arthritis care in dogs

Looking after your senior cat

Caring for a blind dog


  • Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) - Fitzpatrick Referrals
  • Intervertebral Disk Disease (IVDD) in Dogs - Veterinary Partner - VIN
  • Intervertebral Disk Disease - The Animal Neurology & Imaging Center
  • Assisting Decision-Making on Age of Neutering for 35 Breeds of Dogs: Associated Joint Disorders, Cancers, and Urinary Incontinence - PMC

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