I’ve created this page to provide some info for fans and fellow dachshund owners, as IVDD (intervertebral disc disease) is a very common and complex issue for dachshunds (affecting about 25% of them), so it’s good to be educated – especially before it happens!
I myself, unfortunately have this problem, and on August 4, 2016, I underwent spinal surgery to have it fixed. So let me tell you a bit more about IVDD, what to look for, about my experience, how to help prevent issues, and what to do if it happens.
Keep in mind that although I am a self-proclaimed expert on the subject, you should always consult your vet.
What is IVDD?
IVDD (intervertebral disc disease) is a condition that affects about 25% of dachshunds as well as some other breeds as well, especially those with longer backs. Our bodies have little discs between our vertebrate – sort of like jelly-filled donuts, that act as cushions between the vertebrae. IVDD is when these discs deteriorate (calcify/harden), wherein they become susceptible to bulging or bursting – especially with hard impacts (jumping off a couch, steps, rough play, etc).
Owners generally first notice IVDD in their dog (if it’s going to happen) between ages 3 and 7 (essentially when the dog is most active in their life). When the jelly in the disc bursts, it usually goes upward based on the shape of the surrounding bone, but can also go side to side. However, if it goes upward, it’s going straight into the spinal canal where it can compress the spinal cord. This can cause pain, discomfort, loss of motor control, and complete paralysis in a matter of days following the injury and depending on how severe it is.
It’s always best if you can prevent a disc from bulging/bursting in the first place. With IVDD, discs become more susceptible to bursting over time as the outer fibrous layer hardens and loses its elasticity. Bursting usually occurs from some sort of impact or sharp movement, like wrestling, jumping off or over things, stairs, an injury, etc.
Here are some good tips on how to prevent an injury:
- Keep your dog strong! A strong back puts less stress on the discs themselves to absorb impacts.
- Don’t let your dog do stairs! Here at Crusoe’s house, we have baby gates set up at the top and bottom of all staircases.
- Use ramps for couches and beds.
The unfortunate part is that sometimes these things just happen, such as with Crusoe’s case. We’ve been following these pracautions since day one (to the best of our ability), but he still ended up needing surgery. Don’t let that discourage you though, these precautions CAN and WILL help prevent dogs from being injured when they don’t need to be.
Signs & Symptoms
- Pain is your first clue. If the dog is whining, hiding under a bed, or squeals/whimpers when you pick them up, that could be a sign.
- Unwillingness to move. If the dog seems reluctant to move, out of the norm, that’s another good indication.
- An arched back, or head held high (which often means a problem with a disc in the neck).
- Weakness or uncoordinated in the back legs (more severe).
- Down dog (dragging/no control of back legs and bladder (worst case scenario and ideally requires immediate surgery).
This is the non-surgical approach following a disc episode or injury. Conservative is generally followed if the episode is minor and there is no or not much loss of control in the back legs. It can also be followed if surgery cannot be done (for financial reasons, for example), but the chance of success is low at that point.
Conservative treatment involves a lot of rest and recuperation (crate rest/very moderated activity) with therapies like laser and acupuncture. Depending on severity of the injury will determine length of conservative treatment and how soon physical therapy can be introduced, such as stretches, hydrotherapy, short walks, wobble boards, etc. With conservative treatment you need to take it slow and cautiously, but physical therapy is still important. Some sources still advocate for 100% strict crate rest for 8 weeks, but this is a rather old school thinking. There will be a lot of muscle loss in 2 months of sitting in a crate that will take years to come back – and that muscle is important for keeping the spine strong and able to prevent future disc problems.
It’s important to note that with conservative treatment you are not “curing” the issue. With proper care, the disc material will harden and scar wherever it erupted (oftentimes in the spinal canal). Even with a constricted spinal cord, it will learn to continue its regular signals even through a smaller space, potentially allowing the dog to regain full function.
Even with proper conservative treatment (which all in all likely takes minimum of two months), there’s a 50% chance the issue will reoccur at some point.
Surgery is a hard decision to take, but should be done if you see the dog getting progressively worse in terms of pain, motor control, and definitely if the dog has lost complete ability to walk. Once the dog goes down and loses deep pain reflex in the toes, you have 24 hours to do the surgery with an 85% chance of success. Otherwise, the chances of the dog ever being able to walk again goes down quickly. If surgery is done earlier than that, like when you notice the legs going wobbly (such as with Crusoe’s case) the chance of success is about 96%.
Always have the surgery conducted by a trained neurologist – not a general veterinarian.
Surgery removes the offending disc material, so it is solving the problem. Occasionally, you may also elect to fenestrate other potential problem discs (remove the inner jelly) so as to prevent them bursting in the future. This is generally done if a second surgery would not be a possibility (for financial or whatever reasons). The surgery may fix the current injured disc, but with IVDD, other discs are susceptable to rupture in the future as well, wherein another surgery may be required… So, a dog with IVDD needs some extra precautions, perpetually.
Following surgery, there is a period similar to conservative treatment to allow proper healing, albeit not as long as pure conservative treatment (generally 6 weeks or so). And physical therapy can be started right away as well. Again, some people advocate for 6 weeks strict crate rest, but even with humans who undergo spinal surgery, physical therapy starts right away – sometimes even the same day as the surgery!
Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation
There’s a lot you can do in terms of rehabilitation whether you follow a surgical or conservative treatment. How much you do and how soon depends on the injury and whether or not the dog had surgery or is following a conservative program, so you should consult a rehabilitation-specialized veterinarian. The main part of follow-up care and rehabilitation is managing pain, as the body heals easier when it’s not in pain.
I’m not a vet so won’t recommend what medication to give your dog, but gebapentin (which is what Crusoe took) is a very safe drug and works particularly on nerve pain. Immediately following an disc episode or surgery, you’ll also need anti-inflammatories (as inflammation will constrict nerves even more and cause more pain).
Range of motion & stretches
This is a very gentle exercise and can be done pretty much right away, but you can evaluate the dog’s comfort level. You just move the dogs leg in its natural range of motion while they are lying on their side or standing up. You can also stretch the legs forwards and backwards gently.
Sit to stand excercises
Getting the dog to sit and stand up in little sessions a couple times a dog helps work the back leg muscles following surgery.
Hold the dog’s bum and with a treat your other hand, get them to follow your hand from one side to another, bringing their nose from one flank around to the other. This is good for flexibility and stretching the back muscles.
This is great for core-strength building, helping them recuperate muscle and prevent further injury.
For a dog who is working on walking properly again, this is good to help improve their gate again.
Hydro therapy (water treadmill)
This is an amazing therapy that can almost work miracles. The sensation of moving through water stimulates motor and sensory nerves all over the body. It’s an easy way for a dog to start walking (who isn’t walking yet), at the same time building muscle and stimulating nerve regeneration.
Here is the rehabilitation program that Crusoe followed:
- Going for Surgery
- Post-Surgery Update #1: Initial Therapies & Sling-Walking
- Post-Surgery Update #2: Physical Therapy & Excercise
I Think My Dog is Having an IVDD Episode? What Should I Do?
- Keep them immobile. In the crate right away for time being.
- Visit your vet/assess what has happened. Is the dog just in pain? Any difference in the way they are walking? Not walking at all? (The goal is to determine if the disc is pushing on the spinal cord or not. Generally, if they are just showing pain but no loss of motor function, it could be a minor episode and potentially not pushing on the spinal cord).
- If the dog is down (not walking), surgery is the ideal option as soon as possible. Again, you have 24 hours from the time they lose deep pain sensation in their toes. After that, the dog may never walk again.
- If it does not appear to be severe or you elect not to surgery, you need to allow a 6-8 week period of healing and rehabilitation. Your vet will prescribe you a mix of pain killers and anti-inflammatories. At first, the dog should be totally crate-rested, only allowed out for short potty breaks. Laser therapy and acupuncture can be started right away. You’ll want to slowly introduce very controlled activity and exercise under direction of a rehabilitation-specialized vet. You want to keep them inactive enough that scar tissue can form and the disc can heal (since it heals VERY slowly) but not so much as to just waste away muscle either (since that’s VERY hard to recuperate).
- If you do surgery, you’ll need to follow a similar plan to above for about 6 weeks. With surgery, you can generally move things along a little faster.
- In the future, follow precautions outlined above.
- If nothing works and the dog cannot walk, this is not a reason for euthanasia. Even paralyzed dogs can live very fulfilling lives in a little wheelchair! And I’ve seen/heard stories of dogs that takes years to start walking again, so it can take some determination and hard work, but never give up. Nerves and discs take the longest to heal!
- A great website for more information all about IVDD is Dodgerslist.com. However, in my personal opinion they advocate too strongly for 100% strict crate rest, which once again is a bit of old school thinking. Rehabilitation and physical therapy are very important!
- Crusoe’s surgery was performed by Dr. Jull at the Vscan in Ottawa.
- Crusoe’s rehabilitation and therapies were guided and provided by Dr. Gumley at Cedarview Animal Hospital in Ottawa.