Degenerative Disc Disease in Dogs

icon May 14, 2024

Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) is a common condition affecting the intervertebral discs of dogs, particularly in older individuals or those predisposed to spinal issues. This degenerative condition can lead to pain, mobility issues, and neurological deficits if left untreated. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment options, and prognosis associated with Degenerative Disc Disease in dogs.

Causes of Degenerative Disc Disease in Dogs

Degenerative Disc Disease in dogs primarily results from age-related changes in the intervertebral discs, which serve as cushions between the vertebrae of the spine. Over time, these discs can undergo degeneration, losing their elasticity and hydration. While aging is a significant contributing factor, other predisposing factors may include genetics, obesity, physical trauma, repetitive stress injuries, and certain breeds with genetic predispositions to spinal issues, such as Dachshunds, Bulldogs, and Corgis.

Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease in Dogs

The symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease in dogs can vary depending on the location and severity of disc degeneration. Common signs may include:

1. Back Pain:
Dogs with DDD may exhibit signs of discomfort or pain in the back, neck, or hindquarters. They may vocalize, whine, or yelp when touched or during movement.

2. Stiffness and Reduced Mobility: 
Affected dogs may experience stiffness or reluctance to move, especially when rising from a lying position or climbing stairs. They may have difficulty jumping onto furniture or into the car.

3. Hunched Posture:
Dogs may assume a hunched or arched-back posture to alleviate pressure on the spine.

4. Muscle Weakness:
Progressive DDD can lead to muscle weakness, particularly in the hind limbs, resulting in a wobbly or unsteady gait.

5. Neurological Deficits:
In severe cases, DDD can cause compression of the spinal cord or nerve roots, leading to neurological deficits such as limb weakness, paralysis, loss of bladder or bowel control, and changes in reflexes.

Diagnosis of Degenerative Disc Disease in Dogs

Diagnosing Degenerative Disc Disease in dogs typically involves a combination of clinical evaluation, imaging studies, and sometimes advanced diagnostics. The following diagnostic procedures may be performed:

1. Physical Examination:
Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination, assessing your dog's gait, posture, and pain response. Palpation of the spine may reveal areas of tenderness or discomfort.

2. Neurological Evaluation:
A neurological assessment may be conducted to evaluate reflexes, muscle strength, and sensation in the limbs, helping to localize and assess the severity of spinal cord or nerve root involvement.

3. Imaging Studies:
X-rays are commonly used to evaluate changes in the vertebral column, such as disc space narrowing, bony changes, or spinal misalignment. Advanced imaging techniques such as MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or CT (Computed Tomography) scans may be recommended for a more detailed assessment of disc integrity and spinal cord compression.

4. Myelography:
In some cases, a myelogram may be performed, involving the injection of contrast dye into the spinal canal followed by imaging to visualize any abnormalities or compression of the spinal cord.

Treatment Options for Degenerative Disc Disease in Dogs

Treatment for Degenerative Disc Disease in dogs aims to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, improve mobility, and manage neurological deficits. The choice of treatment depends on the severity of symptoms, extent of disc degeneration, and overall health of the dog. Common treatment modalities include:

1. Conservative Management:
Mild cases of DDD may be managed conservatively with rest, restricted activity, pain medications, anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants, and physical therapy. Weight management and dietary supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids may also be beneficial.

2. Surgical Intervention:
Severe or progressive cases of DDD may require surgical intervention to decompress the spinal cord, stabilize the spine, and alleviate nerve root compression. Surgical options may include:

  • Hemilaminectomy:
    A surgical procedure to remove part of the vertebral lamina to access and decompress the affected spinal cord or nerve roots.
  • Laminectomy:
    A more extensive procedure involving the removal of the entire lamina to provide greater access to the spinal canal.
  • Spinal Fusion:
    In cases of instability or vertebral fractures, spinal fusion may be performed to stabilize the affected segment of the spine using implants or bone grafts.

3. Physical Rehabilitation:
Physical therapy and rehabilitation exercises tailored to the individual dog's needs can help improve muscle strength, flexibility, and coordination, enhancing overall mobility and quality of life.

4. Pain Management:
Pain medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), opioids, or neuropathic pain medications, may be prescribed to alleviate discomfort and improve the dog's comfort level.

5. Alternative Therapies:
Some owners may explore alternative therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic care, or hydrotherapy as adjunctive treatments to help manage pain and improve mobility.

Prognosis for Dogs with Degenerative Disc Disease

The prognosis for dogs with Degenerative Disc Disease varies depending on several factors, including the severity of symptoms, extent of disc degeneration, response to treatment, and presence of neurological deficits. Dogs with mild to moderate DDD managed conservatively may experience significant improvement in symptoms and quality of life with appropriate care and management. However, severe cases requiring surgical intervention carry a guarded prognosis, with outcomes influenced by factors such as the extent of spinal cord injury, surgical complications, and postoperative rehabilitation. Regular follow-up examinations, monitoring for recurrence or progression of symptoms, and adjustments to treatment plans as needed are essential for optimizing the long-term outcome and quality of life for dogs with Degenerative Disc Disease.


Degenerative Disc Disease is a common spinal condition affecting dogs, particularly in aging individuals or predisposed breeds. Prompt recognition, accurate diagnosis, and appropriate management are crucial for alleviating pain, improving mobility, and preventing neurological complications associated with this degenerative condition. Through a multimodal approach involving medical therapy, surgical intervention, physical rehabilitation, and supportive care, veterinarians can help enhance the quality of life and prognosis for dogs affected by Degenerative Disc Disease. If you suspect your dog may be experiencing symptoms of DDD, it is essential to consult with your veterinarian promptly for evaluation and personalized treatment recommendations.

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