Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)
“Especially for dachshunds and their friends” (other breeds very welcome)
If your dog has recently been diagnosed with IVDD, or if you are struggling to care for a long-term sufferer, then do not despair. With care and attention to detail, many dogs with IVDD eventually return to a happy lifestyle.
So what is IVDD?
Just like people, dogs have discs between the bony vertebrae of their spine. Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is an umbrella term that is used by many clinicians, dog owners and breeders. IVDD includes disc degeneration, any type of herniation that this may cause, and all the pain and other problems caused by this. It’s particularly common in certain breeds including the mini and standard dachshund, beagle, Pekingese and French bulldog. For more explanation of what is happening in your dog’s spine, click here.
What is the treatment for IVDD?
Some of these dogs are referred for spinal surgery, while others are treated without surgery. Non-surgical treatment is sometimes called medical treatment, conservative treatment or conservative management.
You may find yourself faced with a choice of either surgical or non-surgical treatment, admission, referral or home care. For background information on available options and on decision-making, click here.
For most dogs that can walk, good-quality non-surgical treatment is the sensible option, at least to start with. If these dogs get worse, fail to improve over several weeks, or if the problem keeps recurring, then an operation may be needed.
Above: Learning how to stand and walk again is an important part of treatment for IVDD.
Quality care for your dog during recovery from IVDD
The best recovery plan for your dog
There is no single “magic cure” for IVDD. For best recovery, your dog will need a combination of medicine (including painkillers), nursing care, specific home care and exercise therapy, with or without an operation as well. If a surgical operation is required, then your dog will still need some special care afterwards. Many dogs come home from the operation unable to walk, but then go on to make a good recovery with the help of dedicated home care and exercise therapies.
If your dog does not have an operation, then do not just “wait and see what happens”. Start good-quality non-surgical treatment from day one, including painkillers, safe exercises and all aspects of supportive care. This will give your dog a good chance of recovery, and can help to prevent tricky problems from developing.
Each recovering dog has different home care needs, so do follow your vet’s advice specific to your own dog. You may find the following links useful as further reference:
- If your dog is able to walk either normally or with a wobble (grade 1 or 2) then click here
- If your dog cannot walk without help (grade 3 or 4) then click here
- If your dog is unable to walk and your vet has also told you that he is so severely-affected that he has “no deep pain” (grade 5) then click here.
The above three links include information on treatment options, more specific home care requirements, problems to watch out for, and a typical timescale of recovery.
Your dog’s “recovery team”
For best chance of recovery your dog will need a “helping paw” from several people during the first few weeks to months:
Throughout recovery, you will probably need to go back and forth to your dog’s usual local vet (“primary care vet”) who will check progress and supply medication. It is this vet who organizes referral if required for surgery and/or physiotherapy. If needed, your vet can also advise on all kinds of related problems that may occur such as incontinence. Nurses at your local vet clinic may give you extra support and encouragement, including showing you some basic nursing techniques for use at home, and helping you to track your dog’s weight during longer term recovery.
Above: Your dog may come home unable to walk, in which case you should be taught how to support his rear end with a hindquarter sling. If you’re unsure, then ask your dog’s neurology nurse, physiotherapist or perhaps a standard vet nurse or vet (Image: Bella courtesy of J.Austin)
If your dog needs surgery then he’ll be referred to a neurologist for assessment and an operation. In addition to this specialist vet, there may be a team of people helping to care for your dog within the hospital, perhaps including an anaesthetist/pain specialist, dedicated neurology nurses, and in-house physiotherapist. After discharge from hospital, you may see the neurologist again at one or more check-up appointments.
The physiotherapist or rehabilitation specialist can help you get started with a safe home care routine, including sling-walking if required, and can build these basic activities up into safe exercises to improve your dog’s recovery. From the first week of recovery, look for a canine physiotherapist experienced in working with neurological patients, and let them know what kind of help you’re looking for when you book. Some physiotherapists focus mostly on exercises for late recovery, while others can give very useful advice and practical support from day one.
Above: The physiotherapist can teach you exercises for your recovering dog
To best help your dog recover, one of the most important people is you, the dog’s owner. You will no doubt find yourself busy caring for your dog at home during the weeks to months of recovery. It can feel daunting at first, but many dog owners do a fantastic job once they learn what to do. Most owners of IVDD dogs have plenty of things that they’re unsure about at first. If you have any questions, then note them down and be sure to ask your dog’s vet, nurse or physiotherapist.
Helping your dog to recover: Getting started
See your vet
If you haven’t already done so, then the first thing is to see your vet who can assess your dog and start painkillers. In severe cases, the vet may also consider admitting the dog for at least one day to give fluids and oxygen and to help with any bladder problems. Your vet will help you to decide whether your dog needs to be referred to a neurologist for an operation. If your dog is referred, then the neurologist will reassess him, manage all the fluids and painkillers and so on, image your dog’s spine (e.g. with an MRI scan) and operate if needed.
Set up a “safe space” for your dog
Back at home, you’ll need to set up a safe, comfortable recovery space for your dog. This could be a crate if you can get hold of one big enough for your dog. Or it could be an open-topped pen if your dog definitely won’t jump out. Many dachshunds do well in an indoor pen.
The aim of the recovery space is to prevent your dog from doing anything risky. We occasionally hear of dogs who start off mildly affected, but who then suddenly lose the ability to walk just after jumping off a sofa or chasing across a room. For lists of risky and safe activities, and for tips on keeping your dog safe during recovery, click here.
Above: Tiggy in her recovery pen. Toys and soft bedding are important, and take care to block off any draughts coming through the pen or crate. Some dachshunds like to hide in a fabric pouch. If your dog has just had spinal surgery, check with your dog’s surgeon as to whether this is safe for your own dog. Photo courtesy of Michelle Randall.
Whenever your dog is outside their crate or pen, he should be on a lead or in your arms to prevent any risky dashing about.
For larger breeds, or for very calm dogs who definitely won’t try to jump onto the sofa, you might set up a room in your house to be a “recovery room” for your dog instead of using a crate or pen. If so, the room must have non-slip flooring, and all members of the family will need to take care whenever opening and closing the door so that the dog doesn’t slip out. If your vet has already advised “crate rest” or “room rest” for a certain number of weeks, then do your very best to follow their recommendation. Try the following links for more information:
For good recovery, your dog needs to be as comfortable as possible in his recovery space. For a start, the crate or pen must be large enough for your dog to lie fully stretched out, and to sit, stand and turn around easily, and it should offer enough space for your dog to eat and drink as well as to lie down.
Keeping a dog happy and comfortable during the recovery period can be challenging. Remember to include soft bedding, food, water and something good to chew on. A regular routine will also help your dog to accept the crate or pen. You may find the following links useful:
Outside the recovery crate or room
Whenever your dog is outside the recovery crate, pen or room, he should be on a lead or carried to prevent any dashing off.
You will of course need to take your dog outside for regular “toilet breaks” (to pee and poo). It’s important to follow your vet’s guidelines regarding how often to take your dog outdoors and on how long these outdoor sessions can be. In the absence of any advice, a good starting point is typically 3-5 toilet breaks per day, with each outdoor session being no longer than 5 minutes. Some IVDD dogs need to be given more frequent outdoor chances to pee, e.g. up to 7 toilet break sessions per day (each up to 5 mins long, and carry your dog part of the way if required).
You’ll need to take special care to keep your recovering dog safe whenever they are outside their crate, pen or recovery room. A harness, fixed-length lead, and non-slip floor matting are all very useful. You may need to support your dog’s rear end with a hindquarter sling if he can’t walk unsupported.
The following links offer further information on keeping your dog safe through the recovery period:
Above: It is essential to keep your recovering dog on the lead whenever outdoors.
Dogs who don’t improve Treatment aims to get your dog more comfortable and eventually able to walk. Unfortunately, not every dog does manage to walk again, though most do show some improvement. There’s a table here showing expected recovery rates and approximate recovery times.
If your dog is getting worse (walking less comfortably than before, or appears more painful), then go and see your vet at the next available appointment. A change to the treatment plan could be necessary.
If your dog is not getting worse but not really improving over time, then it’s worth discussing this with your vet. Failure to improve doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog must have a spinal operation. It may just be that something needs adding in to your dog’s non-surgical treatment protocol.
Non-surgical treatment is outlined here. Some aspects of non-surgical treatment are just supportive care, to keep your dog fairly comfortable. However, whether or not your dog has had spinal surgery, exercises and supported activities are a positive treatment because they teach the dog to walk again. This aspect of recovery is not much taught to vets during their standard training, so you may need to be proactive in finding a good physiotherapist to get the “activities & exercises” part of the treatment started. There have also been some fairly recent changes to medication protocols for IVDD. Steroids are generally no longer considered helpful, and vets now have a wider choice of possible painkillers for IVDD dogs. It’s worth getting your dog rechecked at the vet clinic and discussing further options.
Your vet can also help you to decide whether spinal surgery would be worthwhile if your dog has not already tried this. There’s information for owners on decision-making here.
Above: Staying cooped-up at home can be miserable during the recovery period. Bella the dachshund was only allowed to walk for brief periods, but she enjoyed getting out and about in a dog pushchair. (Photo courtesy of J. Austin)
Further information and getting in touch
For further information about caring for your dog during recovery, try clicking on the various links on this webpage.
To book a physiotherapy session with The Rehab Vet (Herts, UK), please contact me here.