IVDD diagnosis in dogs

IVDD diagnosis in dogs

IVDD diagnosis in dogs

Signs or symptoms of IVDD

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a painful condition which can cause weak, wobbly legs and difficulty walking. Dogs with severe IVDD may be unable to move their legs at all (paralysis) and may lose control of bladder and bowel function.

The sudden-onset form of the condition is seen most often in certain breeds including miniature and standard dachshunds, beagles, French bulldogs, cavalier King Charles spaniels and cocker spaniels. Onset of clinical signs or symptoms can vary: Some dogs show mild signs which never progress, some dogs are found collapsed on the floor with no previous known problem while, in others, signs progress over hours or days.

Pain and other clinical signs or symptoms are caused by disc herniation. In dachshunds, it’s very unusual for this to happen before two years old,  but occurs quite commonly in male and female dogs of three years and over. 

             SIGNS OF PAIN REPORTED IN IVDD-AFFECTED DACHSHUNDS

Reluctance to walk, jump up or stand upright on hind legs
Crying or flinching when touched
Trembling, shaking and/or panting
Arched back
Crying or yelping when picked up
Refusal to go down a small step or kerb
Change of mood or temperament
“Swollen” or hard abdomen
Reduced appetite
Unable to do a full body shake

Some of the signs listed above can be easily confused with those caused by a gastric upset, cystitis, pancreatitis or other problems. It’s important that your vet checks your dog carefully as these dogs can be tricky to diagnose correctly. Dogs with a gastric upset certainly won’t want to be sent to a neurologist for spinal imaging. However, to be on the safe side, if there is a possibility of pain being due to IVDD then it is sensible to avoid running and jumping until your vet gives you the all-clear. For tips on how to keep your dog safe in this situation, click here

Above: Sybil trembling and hunched with a painful back. Thanks to M.Lucas for sharing this video.

In short-legged breeds such as dachshunds, any difficulty walking tends to be confined to the hind legs only. Your dog may walk with a staggering gait rather like a drunken sailor, and he may cross his hind paws over or place them upside-down at times. Some dogs are unable to walk at all, but may try to pull themselves along with the front legs while dragging the rear end along behind.

If disc herniation occurs in the neck instead of the back, then the dog may have neck pain and, in more severe cases, may have difficulty using all four limbs. 


Above: Standing posture often seen in IVDD-affected dogs. Thanks to Claire Murphy for this picture of her dog Jakes.

Above: Ernie demonstrating quite a wobbly (ataxic) walk. Thanks to E.Brechin for sharing this video.

Above: Reg dragging his hindquarters along. The video shows him at 11 days after spinal surgery. Thanks to D. Ashby for sending in this video.

The severity of the dog’s clinical signs (symptoms) affects his chances of recovery and can help guide decision-making. Some vets find it useful to use a clinical grading scale such as the one shown below. For more information on the clinical grading scale, click here.

Diagnostic imaging: MRI and other tools

If your dog is a dachshund (or another dog breed very prone to IVDD) then, just by examining him closely, your vet may well have enough information to be almost certain that your dog’s pain or odd gait are caused by IVDD. If clinical grading is required, then this is also based on  veterinary examination rather than on imaging results. In many cases, no further diagnostic tests are needed.

However, before going ahead with spinal surgery, imaging would be needed both to confirm the diagnosis and to check exactly which disc or discs have herniated.

X-rays are a completely unreliable test for diagnosing disc herniation. If pain or other problems are thought to be due to IVDD, it’s therefore not a good idea to x-ray the dog’s spine.

Advanced imaging techniques: For dogs about to undergo spinal surgery, an MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging scan) is extremely useful. It is an excellent way to confirm the diagnosis of IVDD and is very useful for surgical planning. Bear in mind that an MRI scan locates the spinal problem very precisely but it does not always give reliable information about the dog’s chances of recovery with or without surgeryPenning et al 2006. For this, the dog’s clinical examination findings (or clinical IVDD grade) are more useful. 

In dachshunds showing signs typical of IVDD, the MRI scan is mainly used just before spinal surgery, not as a screening tool.

Advanced imaging such as MRI can of course be offered to any dog, but these techniques do require a general anaesthetic, are expensive, and tend to be available only in referral hospitals. Therefore, in breeds such as the dachshund, the MRI scan is mainly used just before spinal surgery, not as a more general screening tool. If MRI is unavailable, then myelography or CT scan are occasionally used instead of MRI before surgery.

In some dog breeds (e.g. boxers and German shepherds) presenting with certain clinical signs, advanced imaging (e.g. MRI scan) may be a good idea early in the course of the disease to help rule out spinal tumours, infection and other conditions. However, dachshunds have an extremely high risk of IVDD, and other spinal conditions that could be confused with this are very unusual indeed in this breed. Unless opting for spinal surgery, it’s therefore usually appropriate for the vet to start treating dachshunds based on results of the clinical examination.

We very occasionally come across owners who have paid for an MRI scan but no treatment, and are wondering why the scan has not cured their dog. The MRI scan is very useful for diagnosis, but it is not itself a treatment. To help your dog get better, look into the options of surgical and non-surgical treatment. There’s some information on decision-making here

Penning, V., Platt, S. R., Dennis, R., Cappello, R., & Adams, V. (2006). Association of spinal cord compression seen on magnetic resonance imaging with clinical outcome in 67 dogs with thoracolumbar intervertebral disc extrusion. Journal of small animal practice47(11), 644-650. The degree of spinal cord compression documented with magnetic resonance imaging in dogs with
thoracolumbar Hansen type 1 intervertebral disc disease was not associated with the severity of neurological signs and was not
a prognostic indicator in this study.

Further references available on request

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