So you found out your dog has Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD). At a minimum, you and your dog endured 6 weeks of crate rest. There were sad eyes, guilt, whining, patience, and frustration involved. Some of your dogs needed surgery too. Your dog may or may not have recovered to normal, or almost, normal again. You don’t think your emotions, and your pocketbook, can’t go through IVDD treatment a second time.
Your instinct may tell you to be very, very careful and treat your dog like fragile glass from now on to avoid another episode. But should you?
After I shared the story of Gretel’s symptoms and diagnosis, I received a lot of support from people who have gone through the same thing. I also received a few negative comments about my attitudes and goals from well-intentioned folks.
One of the comments I received said, “I really think [Gretel’s] hiking and traveling should be over. [She] Needs rest and lots of care. [She’s] Doing too much.” I got another couple of comments essentially telling me that what I was doing with Gretel – hiking so much – was bad for her and I need to stop.
Let me be clear that most of the comments I’ve received have been very positive and encouraging. I’m not careless though so I did take a second look at my goals for Gretel, after the negative comments, to make sure I still thought I was doing the right thing.
Reactions Based on Experiences
Our beliefs are shaped by our experiences. Unfortunately, I’ve heard from people’s whose experiences with the veterinarian after their dog was diagnosed with IVDD have been all doom and gloom. I can’t believe it but there are apparently still vets out there that are telling people that the only option if their dog is paralyzed and they can’t afford the surgery is to put them down. I can’t tell you how many “miracle” stories I’ve heard about people’s paralyzed Dachshunds eventually being able to walk again after a lot of rest and at-home exercises. Of course, some do remain paralyzed but they have gone on to live happy lives scooting around in their wheelie cart.
Other vets are less “shocking” but are still doom and gloom none the less. They tell people that it’s almost a sure thing that their dog will have a very significant problem again and that they should basically treat their dogs like glass from here on out.
Some people have had the unfortunate circumstance of owning one or more dogs that have had ongoing, almost unending bouts of IVDD flareups. Some of these dogs have even ended up paralyzed long-term.
Perhaps the people who sent me these messages had experiences like these in the past. I admit that I haven’t.
The Truth About IVDD
Before we go into whether I need to be more careful with Gretel now or not, let’s make sure we understand what IVDD is.
You can read my article The Truth About Dachshund Back Problems but, basically, it says that IVDD is a genetic, degenerative disease you don’t have a lot of control over. If your dog is going to have an episode that leads to a diagnosis of IVDD, It’s most likely to occur between the ages of 4 – 8 (more typically 4 – 6) no matter of how active or sedentary of life your dog leads. I’ve seen Dachshunds that spend most of their time sleeping around the house end up with back injuries associated with IVDD. I’ve seen Dachshunds that lead a very, very active life – like TruMan who runs marathons – never have any issues (he does not, to my knowledge, have IVDD – better proving my point about the potential for injury being tied more to genetics than activity level).
The good news is that not only is IVDD not a death-to-all-fun sentence for your dog, but modern medicine has allowed dogs to make full recoveries and thrive. Or, at the very least, helped dogs manage their condition to a level that still allows them to be active, even if it’s at a lower capacity than they were before. Ten+ years ago, when the message was “6-10 weeks strict crate rest and then you better wrap your dog in bubble wrap the rest of it’s life”, therapies like laser treatment and sports rehab were not readily available for dogs. Because of the numerous treatment options available today, dogs with IVDD have a better chance of recovery, better options for IVDD management, and possibly a lower risk of re-injury.
So how careful should you be with your IVDD dog? That depends on a lot of things like:
The extent of your dog’s disease
If your dog was paralyzed at some point, their disease is likely in an advanced stage and there is potential for other disks to be in a more fragile state. In Gretel’s case, her IVDD episode seemed to progress slowly. It probably did start a month before her diagnosis when she started to skip a leg while running. She seemed fine other than that but, a month later, she suddenly was in pain after jumping off the couch . Her symptoms were mild but I knew the signs of IVDD so I contacted the vet before letting too much time pass. We were lucky enough to catch her episode in it’s early stages. It’s assumed that her disease is also in the early stages at this point.
The shape they were in before the IVDD episode
A dog who is fit, active, and at an ideal weight before an episode may be more likely to continue being active after they have healed. In Gretel’s case, it’s absolutely been an advantage because she doesn’t have that extra weight on her spine to deal with. My vet said that usually the first thing they have to tell pet owners of dogs with an IVDD injury is to slim their dog down. Imagine trying to get your dog, who is forced to be sedentary for 6 – 8 weeks, to lose two or five pounds. Fit, active dogs also have more and stronger muscles. All dogs on crate rest will lose some muscle tone and/or mass but the dogs that started out strong will be less out of shape once they’ve healed.
How well they recovered after their episode
If a dog was paralyzed and never regains use of their back legs, obviously their activities may be more restricted. They may only be able to go where a wheelchair will go. Whether they were initially paralyzed or not, if they still drag a foot, or otherwise don’t walk properly, they may also be limited to what and how much they can safely do. Scraped toes is a common injury of dogs that drag a foot while walking. If a dog has made a full recovery from an episode though, they may be able to resume normal activities.
The time and money you are willing to put into rehabilitation
I must admit that Chester, Gretel and I were what they call weekend warriors. A weekend warrior is someone who is basically sedentary all week and then goes for a big adventure on the weekend. I didn’t want that to be us, and I always “tried” to increase our activity during the week, but it never stuck.
I don’t have the luxury of being complacent anymore. I plan to walk every day, or at least several times a week, around our neighborhood so Gretel is in shape for regular activity. I will be doing home exercises with her to strengthen the muscles in her legs and back. I’ll learn dog massage and stretching techniques to keep her strong muscles balanced and supple. I also plan to do some kind of “therapeutic treatment”, like acupuncture, on an ongoing basis. This will take significant time and money on my part but, fortunately, I’m willing and able to do it if it means an active, quality life for Gretel. Not everyone is in a position where they can be so proactive though.
Your tolerance of risk
This one is significant. In my experience, there are two primary camps of people in life. Some people live life in fear of something going wrong and spend their whole life trying to minimize or avoid risk. Others live by the motto’s “you only live once” and “we’re all going to die someday, you might as well enjoy life”. These people are comfortable with risk and some even embrace it because they feel that doing something that scares you helps you grow and feel alive. These are two extremes and, of course, there is a whole spectrum of people in between. Most people have decided that some things are worth a little risk and some aren’t. I admit that I’ve always been a little more comfortable with risk than some, although I see all risk I take as a well-calculated risk. As pet owners, our personal beliefs tend to extend to our dogs so someone less comfortable with risk may think their dog should be super, super careful too.
Just so you understand what the risk actually is… My neighbor, who is a veterinary surgeon, said that after crate rest and therapy, once the offending disk forms the hard covering over it or calcifies, that disk is unlikely to pose a problem in the future. However, there are other disks affected by IVDD that could cause a problem ranging from mild to severe. He said there was a 20% chance, per disk, that something could go wrong with one of Gretel’s other disks in the future.
To put this risk into perspective, a human has a 0.000001% chance of dying sitting home playing a computer game (given that you don’t have cancer or heart disease I assume because the risk is higher for those. Source.), a 0.16% chance of being hit walking down the street, a 0.37% chance of dying in a car accident, and a 14% – 16% chance of dying of cancer or heart disease (Source). A 20% chance is approximately 1:5 odds. That is a significant risk in my book.
Your perspective on the positives and negatives of inactivity
It looks like staying home and sitting around might be safer, right? Maybe. I mean, one theory is the less your dog does, the less risk there is of re-injury. On the other hand, there are risks associated with living a more sedentary life too.
Benefits of moderate exercise for your dog include:
- Reducing the risk of heart disease and other illnesses
- Reducing Stress, anxiety, and depression
- Helping maintain a healthy weight
- Keeping their muscles toned toned
- Invigorating all the organ systems in their body
To me, there are more benefits to keeping Gretel active.
What your vet recommends
You can consider all of the above and make up your own mind. It really all comes down to this point though. Share your thoughts, beliefs, hopes, and goals with your vet and see what they say. I am not a vet. You are not a vet. Only they have the expertise to medically evaluate your dog and tell you whether you are on the right track or not.
My Bottom Line
When Gretel was diagnosed with IVDD, I asked the vet point blank of she will ever be able to hike again and she said, “If all goes well, absolutely!” No hesitation. I got a second opinion about it from a veterinary surgeon and he said the same thing. Our doggy sports rehab vet also agrees. In fact, they told me that I should not stop doing the activities we were used to as long as she heals up properly from this episode and I am willing to take some extra precautions.
Of course, there is always the risk of her having another episode now that I know she has IVDD but the risk was there before she was diagnosed as far as I am concerned. The only real difference for me is that it’s now a known risk rather than a potential risk.
I plan to return Gretel to hiking if she can. I’ll make her take it a little easier though – not letting her scramble up the side of huge rocks like she used to and carrying her up and down sections of trail with a lot of stairs. I plan on learning dog massage, stretching her muscles after rigorous activity, and regularly doing strengthening exercises with her at home. I’m prepared to get her acupuncture or laser treatments on an ongoing basis to help her body cope with any physical stress. To me, this will minimizes the risk of another IVDD flare up to a comfortable level.
As always, I will watch her keenly to make sure I don’t ask her to do more than she can handle. The truth is she may not be able to hike again like we used to but it’s also the truth that she might be able to. I am 100% confident that I will make the right decisions for her and our family.
I was going to wait until after Gretel’s initial period of crate rest was over to write this article but I didn’t want to wait to put this information out there. I know someone might be going through what I am at this very second and they could use some hope. My aim is to inspire people to make informed decisions about how to treat their IVDD dog instead of acting blindly out of fear alone. I want set an example of how you can be active with your IVDD dog after diagnosis.