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Learning About Intervertebral Disc Disease in Dogs

If you follow our Facebook page, you’ve probably read that Ty’s having some trouble with his back. About a week ago, we noticed he was moving slowly and holding himself differently. His tail was droopy, and he just didn’t seem to be feeling well. Of course, these things always happen on the weekend – when most veterinarians are closed – but we found an emergency hospital nearby and took Ty in for an exam. (Here are our tips for handling a trip to the emergency vet.)

Ty at Veterinarian

This is not the face of a happy camper.

The veterinarian noticed immediately how tense Ty was and that his back seemed to be the source of his pain, so they took some x-rays to see if they could determine the cause.

Intervertebral discs are like little shock absorbers that sit between the vertebrae in our spines. The same is true for dogs, and based on the decreased space between two of Ty’s vertebrae, the veterinarian believed that one of his discs was ruptured. A ruptured (or herniated) disc presses on the nerves in the spinal column, which is extremely painful and can even cause paralysis.

I’m familiar with the condition, because two years ago I was laid up for a month with a herniated disc. At the time, my doctor explained that if we think of our discs like soft-boiled eggs – when we rupture one, it’s like the yolk of the egg squeezes out through a tear in the egg white. To heal the disc we have to reduce the inflammation so the egg yolk can slide back where it belongs, and then take it easy until scar tissue can form over the tear in the egg white, so the yolk can’t slip back out.

To help Ty heal, the doctor prescribed pain medication and steroids to reduce the inflammation and put Ty on strict bed rest for one week.

Ty - Dog resting on bed

Snoozing in his bed is what Ty likes to do best anyway, and the pain medication seemed to make him extra sleepy, so enforcing the doctor’s orders wasn’t difficult. It took a few days before we started to see any improvement, but Ty slowly started to perk up, and before long we were happy to see his tail  back up in it’s usual position.

It appears we caught Ty’s injury early, and that he’ll make a complete recovery. Still, he’ll be taking it easy for several more weeks, so his disc has plenty of time to heal completely. Avoiding further injuries to his back is important, because severe cases of intervertebral disc disease (IDD) can require surgery to repair. That means there’ll be no running, rough-housing, jumping, or climbing the stairs in Ty’s near future. And some of those activities we’ll be nixing permanently.

As dogs get older, their discs lose their resiliency and become rigid and brittle. Some breeds, like Poodles, Cocker Spaniels, and Dachshunds are more susceptible, but IDD can affect any breed. It’s possible that Ty’s injury is just a fluke, but at 10 1/2 years old, we’d rather not take any chances.

Ty - Dog doing yoga

Yoga’s helped my back a lot but Ty doesn’t look convinced, so we’ll be taking other measures to try to keep him from re-injuring his back. We’re in the market for a ramp so he’ll be able to get in and out of the RV without us carrying him. We’ll also be scaling back the difficulty of the hikes we choose and taking care not to over do it on the distances we walk with him. Ty’s never been a fan of sleeping in the bed or jumping on the furniture (unless he’s in hot pursuit of a stick of butter), so managing those behaviors should be easier for us.

What have your experiences been with IDD and your pets? Have you found treatments that have helped, or exercises to improve their chances of avoiding future injuries? Do you have a ramp that you love? We’re trying to learn how to best help Ty, and your suggestions are much appreciated – please leave a comment below!

Update: It turns out Ty doesn’t have IDD … he as discospondylitis! Read about his new diagnosis.

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  • I’m pretty sure Ty would think he’s in heaven if we get him a stroller, Denise! He’s not a big fan of exercise as it is. Also, great suggestion about the custom made ramp. Thanks so much for your note!

  • Thank you for your note, Betsy. I’m so glad your girl is doing well and leading a happy life in her cart. I will absolutely keep an eye on Ty for any signs that his feet are knuckling under – I appreciate the heads-up, because the vet didn’t mention anything about that to me.

  • Thank you, Victoria! I’m going to look into both of these products to see if they might also help Ty. I appreciate your note.

  • Thanks for your note, Taryn. I’m so glad that your boy lived such a long, happy life. We’ve always worked to keep Ty and Buster at a healthy weight, because so many diseases are related to a dog being over weight – but now we’ll be focusing on it even more. And, Ty’s not really a fan of exercise, but we’ll be making sure he gets plenty of walks to keep his muscles toned once he’s recovered from this injury. Great tips!

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