Degenerative Disc Disease in Dogs

Written By Leslie Ingraham
Published: 03/18/2022Updated: 04/05/2022
Veterinary reviewed by Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS
Degenerative Disc Disease in Dogs

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

Degenerative disc disease in dogs (DDD), or Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) is a deterioration of the spinal vertebrae that can affect any dog as they age or incur injuries, but some breeds will be more predisposed to the condition due to genetics.

Structures called discs provide a cushion between the bony sections of the spinal column (vertebrae) and allow the spine to move without damaging the spinal cord inside. The spinal cord provides communication between the brain and the organs and muscles of the body, including leg muscles and those involved with urination and stool elimination. When the discs deteriorate, they may protrude and press on the cord or nerves causing pain and partial to complete paralysis.

Degenerative disc disease in dogs commonly affects the mid-to-lower back or the neck. The condition may resolve with time and medical treatment, or with surgery.

Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease in Dogs

Symptoms of DDD depend on whether the part of the spinal cord affected is in the neck or in the mid-to- lower back. They can appear slowly, or may arise suddenly after trauma or excessive exercise. In some cases, when signs appear suddenly, the disc degeneration has been occurring over time with minimal signs.

Symptoms of DDD in the neck area include:

  • Severe pain in the area
  • An unwillingness to move the head
  • Drooping head with an inability to raise it
  • Paralysis beginning with the back legs, advancing to all four

Symptoms of DDD in the mid-to-lower back include:

  • Partial or complete paralysis in the back legs
  • Paw dragging
  • Lack of sensation to the paws
  • Pain
  • Reluctance to move around
  • Stumbling or unbalanced gait
  • Urinary and bowel incontinence

Causes of Degenerative Disc Disease in Dogs

Degeneration of the vertebral discs happens over time, but symptoms can occur in dogs as young as three to seven years old. In these cases, it’s likely that disc breakdown begins during the pup’s first year and progresses into adulthood. The cause is thought to be genetic. Breeds often affected by DDD include:

Diagnosis of Degenerative Disc Disease in Dogs

A veterinary visit as soon as possible after the onset of symptoms is necessary to find the cause of the dog’s pain and/or paralysis and to develop a treatment plan. After collecting information about the symptoms’ duration and characteristics, your vet will perform a physical exam that includes testing your dog’s reflexes and applying pressure along the spinal column to check for discomfort. Observation of physical symptoms, especially in conjunction with identifying a susceptible breed, will lead to a preliminary diagnosis which can be confirmed by imaging with X-ray, myelogram, MRI, or CAT scan.

Obtaining a sample of the spinal fluid can help to rule out other potential causes of the dog’s condition, such as an infection. If surgery is being considered, routine blood tests will be done to determine if the dog is healthy enough for the anesthesia and a long recovery.

Treatment of Degenerative Disc Disease in Dogs

Treatment aims to relieve pain and paralysis by alleviating pressure on the spinal cord. The modality will depend on the location of the affected disc(s), duration of the symptoms, and stage or severity of the condition. Stages may overlap, but in general they include: 

Stage I (mild pain)

This stage is usually self-correcting with time, anti inflammatories and pain relief. Treatment risk is zero to small. Strict rest will be advised.

Stages II and III (moderate to severe pain, partial paralysis)

Treatment includes rest, pain management, and anti-inflammatory drugs like steroid injections and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The risk of this treatment plan is minimal, although all medications may have side effects, particularly if used long term. Crate rest may be advised.

Stage IV (paralysis, but sensation is present)

Treatment for this stage requires surgery within seven days to remove or repair the affected disc(s). The procedure is done through a small window (fenestration) through the bone to visualize and either repair or remove the affected disc(s). If the problem is in the neck, the surgeon may enter through a cervical incision on the back or through the throat in front. The risk of surgery is moderate and includes bleeding, infection, or reaction to anesthesia.

Stage V (paralysis and loss of feeling)

Immediate emergency surgery is necessary at Stage V to relieve pressure on the spinal cord, ideally within 24 hours. Statistics show that when surgery is delayed more than 24 hours in severe disease, there is a less than 5% chance of recovery. The dog may remain paralyzed for life. Emergency surgery risks are higher than for elective surgery.

A hospital stay of at least 3 to 10 days is necessary to assess improvement, manage post-op care if needed, and limit activity. Typically, a dog can return home once they can urinate on their own.

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Recovery of Degenerative Disc Disease in Dogs

Recovery from degenerative disc disease ranges from a return to normal, to permanent paralysis and incontinence. Severely affected dogs may have to be euthanised. The long-term success of treatment involves controlled exercise and the dog’s motivation level. Exercise is prescribed by the veterinarian, but the pet parent bears the responsibility for carrying it out, while also motivating the dog to want to move around. Recovery may take weeks to several months, based on the severity of the damage to the spinal cord. Stair-climbing and jumping are generally restricted or eliminated. 

Follow-up appointments allow the vet to assess the dog’s progress and provide you tips helping them recover. The vet may also prescribe physical therapy treatments that will maintain muscle health. 

If partial or complete paralysis is the final result, you may be able to access a canine walking apparatus through your veterinary clinic, and manage bladder and bowel incontinence at home. If quality of life is absent, euthanasia will be discussed as an option.

Degenerative disc disease can be expensive to treat. If you suspect your dog is at risk of developing this condition, start searching for pet insurance today. Wag! Wellness lets pet parents compare insurance plans from leading companies like PetPlan and Embrace. Find the “pawfect” plan for your pet in just a few clicks!

Cost of Degenerative Disc Disease in Dogs

Average cost of treatment of degenerative disc disease in dogs: $2,000 - $12,000

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