Since 25% of Dachshunds will experience IVDD (Intervertebral Disk Disease/Degeneration) related back issues in their lifetime, many Dachshund owners wonder if there is an IVDD test.
Back surgery can cost around $10,000, and it can severely impact the quality of a dog’s life (and the humans that care for them), so it’s very valuable for Dachshund owners to know if their dog is one that will be afflicted.
Many other dog breeds can have IVDD too, including french bulldogs, chihuahuas, cocker spaniels, beagles, and basset hounds.
So IVDD is not just a concern of Dachshund owners.
In this article, I will share information with you about:
- What IVDD is
- If a test for IVDD exists and what kind
- The difference and effectiveness of genetic testing vs X-ray screening for calcifications
- Signs and symptoms of IVDD
- What to do if you suspect IVDD
Why I’m Qualified to Write About IVDD
Since IVDD is a complicated topic, and I am not a veterinarian, you may be wondering if I have any business writing about this topic.
My Dachshund suffered a back injury and was diagnosed with IVDD in 2016.
Ironically, around that same time, had begun studying Intervertebral Disk Disease in Dachshunds because of personal interest and for this blog.
I have a science background so my goal was to learn from all of the science-minded information out there and distill it into a format that could be easily-understood.
My knowledge and experience of IVDD comes from:
- Reading dozens and dozens of scientific research papers
- Discussing IVDD extensively with my dog’s regular and rehab veterinarian
- Talking with people as or more knowledgeable about IVDD than I am, including an international IVDD group made up of scientists, breeders, and owners well-educated on the latest science about IVDD (you can join the public-facing part of the group – Back Talk on Facebook).
- Hearing from hundreds owners about their IVDD experience through this blog and the Dachshund club I founded
- Experiencing, and assisting with, the recovery process for the Dachshunds whom I used to care for when I had a dog walking and sitting business
What is IVDD in Dogs?
There are 2 ways a Dachshund can suffer a spinal injury – acute injury and and a disk herniation as a result of IVDD.
Acute injury is self explanatory. It’s an outside force acting on a dog’s spine that results in damage.
Examples would be a significant fall, getting hit by a car, or getting in a car accident.
Disk herniation in Dachshunds as a result of IVDD is caused by Hansen’s Type I Disk Disease.
Note: There is a Type II but it occurs in dogs without short legs, is more typical of chronic disc degeneration, and most commonly occurs in medium and large dogs between 8-10 years old.
In this article I will be discussing Hansen’s Type I intervertebral disk disease. This is the type of IVDD we’re concerned with testing for.
Hansen’s Type I IVDD occurs commonly in chondrodystrophic (dwarf with shortened legs) breeds, such as the Dachshund.
It’s a condition that causes a dog’s spinal disks to become dehydrated, calcified, and brittle, which can result in a partial to full ruptured disk, also called Intervertebral Disk Herniation (IVDH).
Normal movements of the spinal column are enough to cause an acute disc herniation and the disk rupture can lead to sudden paralysis.
The rupture usually occurs in the lower back and pinches a nerve, or nerves, which can result in the loss of feeling, or paralysis, of the back legs, and an inability to express their bladder or bowels on their own.
However, the disk rupture can also be in the neck (cervical spine), which can result in paralysis from that point down the body.
This can manifest as paralysis in all 4 legs and, in extreme cases, paralysis of the lungs.
In rare cases, pinched nerves can die and this necrosis can move up or down the spinal cord (this is called myelomalacia) making euthanasia the only option to end the pain.
Hansen’s Type I IVDD affects younger dogs and usually occurs when a Dachshund is between 4 and 8 years old.
This is the type of IVDD that Dachshund owners hear about and fear most.
Is There a Test for Intervertebral Disk Disease?
If you asked, “Is there an intervertebral disk disease test?” ten years ago, the answer would have been no in regard to genetic testing.
It was believed that owners and vets wouldn’t know the dog was born with IVDD until the first signs appear, typically when the dog was between 3 and 8 years old.
That is still the only sure way to tell your dog will suffer an IVDD injury – when it actually happens.
But wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to test for IVDD so owners would know if they need take action to potentially reduce the severity and frequency of any potential back injury?
Owners could take precations like:
- Introducing additional nutritional support into their dog’s diet, including supplementation
- Modifying lifestyle and activity to help strengthen the supporting spine muscles
- Limiting large jumps
- Preparing financially for an expensive, potential surgery in the future
Many owners also wonder why a breeders don’t test the Dachshunds they breed for IVDD so it won’t be passed onto offspring.
Hansen’s Type I IVDD is caused by genetics so it seems like it would be possible, right?
Unfortunately, the disease is not that straightforward.
IVDD Testing in Dachshunds
There have been some developments in IVDD testing in dogs – both in availability and awareness – in the last decade or so.
However, the short answer is still no. There is no test for IVDD that is 100% reliable.
However, there are currently two avenues in which you can try to predict whether a Dachshund has IVDD or not.
IVDD Genetic Testing
The details of the genetics around IVDD is a bit overwhelming and complicated, even to a scientist (me). Therefore, I am going to try and shorten and simplify it here.
If you want to take a deep-dive into IVDD genetics, and genetic testing, see the resources at the bottom of this article.
The two genes identified – Chondrodysplasia (CDPA – FGF4-18) and Chondrodystrophy (CDDY – FGF4-12) – are associated with short-legged breeds and the susceptibility to intervertebral disc disease.
Both affect a dog’s development in the womb, appearance, and result in dogs with legs disproportionately shorter than their body length.
Some dogs have on the FGF4 retrogene only one chromosome 18 (Chondrodysplasia), some only have the FGF4 retrogene on chromosome 12 (Chondrodystrophy), and some dog breeds like the Dachshund have a high frequency of both.
If a dog only has Chondrodystrophy (CDDY), they have a “normal dog” risk of IVDD and disk rupture.
If a dog only has Chondrodysplasia, the risk is increased.
If a dog has both like the Dachshund does, the risk can be up to 25%.
Scientists at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) developed a genetic test that they hoped would predict the IVDD risk for dogs.
During the most significant initial phase, a lot of Dachshund breeders gladly sent in samples for their dogs to be tested for the gene UC Davis scientists.
As it turns out, all of those Dachshunds tested positive for the FGF4-18 gene and many (90%) tested positive for the FGF4-12 gene.
This makes sense because all Dachshunds have long bodies and very short legs (compared to other dog breeds).
However, even though almost all Dachshunds have one or two copies of these genes, not all Dachshunds will develop back problems at a young age so this information was essentially useless.
In fact, Embark, which is one of the companies that performs a genetic test for the FGF4-12 retrogene, makes this disclaimer on their website:
“Please note that this variant is extremely common in many small and chondrodystrophic dog breeds.
In these breeds, this variant may not be the strongest predictor of IVDD/IVDH risk compared to other genetic or environmental factors.”
A paper published by Frontiers in Veterinary Science states,
“Several aspects of the clinical presentation of IVDD in dogs are not easily explained by a simple presence or absence of the CFA12 FGF4 retrogene.” (source)
In other words, having the FGF4 retrogene on CFA12 alone is not an accurate predictor whether a dog will herniate a disk.
There are other genes involved (like potentially this one) that haven’t been identified yet so testing positive for the retrogene does not guarantee a dog will suffer an IVDD related back injury.
Note: IVDD Genetics is a hot topic picking up research steam. I will come back and update this section of relevant findings are discovered.
Plus, it’s acknowledged that environmental factors (both in the womb and after birth) can influence the occurrence of IVDD and what those are haven’t been precisely determined.
Where can I get a genetic IVDD test for my dog?
To be clear: genetic testing for the FGF4 retrogene on chromosome 12 is not a predictor of IVDD in Dachshunds. If you are still interested in the test, read on.
Personally, I don’t think testing for the CFA12 FGF4 retrogene is worth it.
However, there are several companies that include it among the suite of other health tests for Dachshunds.
If you are planning to test your Dachshund for other potential health issues anyway, like s beeder might, why not find a test that includes the CFA12 FGF4 retrogene test too just for fun?
However, take the results with a house-sized grain of salt because, as I said, it’s a very inaccurate predictor of potential back injuries in Dachshunds (but useful for breeds without the “dwarfisim” gene).
If you want to test your Dachshund for the gene, knowing that it’s not an good predictor of IVDD and that your Dachshund will likely have the gene, one can be ordered from UC Davis HERE for $50.
You can also order the test “Chondrodystrophy (CDDY and IVDD Risk) with or without Chondrodysplasia (CDPA)” alone or as part of a comprehensive panel from PawPrint Genetics.
Embark offers this testing as part of their dog DNA testing kit.
Genetic testing can range from $50 to $200 (if it’s part of a panel).
IVDD Calcification Screening
Many European countries have been screening for IVDD for years by taking a specific kind of X-ray and counting the number of calcified disks present.
The age for screening is 2-4 years old.
When testing before 2 years of age, the calcifications could still be forming so it wouldn’t be an accurate assessment of the ultimate “total”.
Testing after 4 years of age could be done but it’s been shown that the body starts to reabsorb some of the calcifications at that point so doing it could result in a “fewer than the maximum” that existed.
In other words, testing before 2 or after 4 years of age won’t give an accurate determination.
The X-rays need to be done by a veterinarian who is used to taking spinal x-rays, but it does not have to be a back-screening specialist (vets doing orthopedics or neurology take a lot of these kinds of x-rays).
Whoever you use, be sure that they can send DICOM-images and that they follow these exact instructions.
Thet need to be sent off to a specialist in reading X-rays in Dachshunds for disk calcification in order to get an accurate count.
The best place to do that is send them to Anu Lappalainen DVM, PhD And Vilma Reunanen DVM, both Finnish Kennel Club screeners or disk calcifications, at INCOC.
The Dachshund is assigned a grade based on how many calcified disks are found.
- Grade 0 = 0 calcifications
- Grade 1 = 1-2 calcifications
- Grade 2 = 3-4 calcifications
- Grade 3 = 5 or more calcifications
Dogs with 5 or more calcifications have a 14 times greater risk of developing a disk herniation compared to dogs with less than 5 calcifications.
Only 9% of dogs who remain healthy have 5 or more calcifications.
Radiographic screening based on intervertebral disk calcification severity scores has been used historically as a potential tool for selective breeding specifically within the Dachshund breed.
Evaluation of X-rays by Anu at INCOC will cost about 38 Euros, or $39.70 USD, at the time of this writing (using the current conversion rate).
Taking the X-rays typically cost between $300 and $500 USD.
Which is a Better Indicator of IVDD – Genetic Testing or X-ray Screening?
X-ray (radiographic) screening has been used in Finland and Denmark for over a decade.
The FGF4-Chromosome 12 genetic testing is newer and has been found to be irrelevant in the Dachshund since almost all of them have the gene (even though not all will herniate a disk).
The main problem with the genetic test for the FGF4 retrogene is that it’s been revealed virtually all Dachshunds have the it (around 90% at least), but the test can’t tell us the extent if IVDDor the relative risk for disk herniation.
Therefore, the prediction of intervertebral disk herniation (IVDH) based on x-ray screening and calcification score is the best choice if you want to try and predict if your Dachshund is at high risk.
A Canine Medicine and Genetics (name of the entity) study states,
“Almost all… Dachshunds have the [genetic] mutation irrespective of the number of calcifications…. However, most dogs with few calcifications have the mutation too.”
Dr Helle Friis Proschowsky, Member of the WSAVA Hereditary Disease Committee, suggests that,
“While the use of the DNA test is attractive because it is easier and less invasive, the results should be viewed with caution.
… in Denmark, at least, a radiographic examination is a more effective selection tool.”
It appears that only screening for calcifications at the moment can tell us how badly affected a Dachshund is by IVDD and the risk of disk herniation.
What Does This Mean for Breeding and Eliminating IVDD?
Both of these methods (X-ray screening and genetic test) have shown us that virtually all Dachshunds have IVDD, which is valuable knowledge to have.
When it comes to selective breeding and breeding programs, since most Dachshunds have IVDD, it would be very difficult to exclude all of them for breeding.
However, the X-ray screening method can at least help breeders select those with fewer calcifications in hopes of minimizing the severity of IVDD in the breed.
Currently, the two solutions for reducing or eliminating IVDD in the Dachshund breed appear to be:
- Breeding only those Dachshunds who show less of the disease
- Outcrossing (introducing other dog breeds) to get rid of the gene mutation
To do this though, breeders would have to be willing to dso the X-ray screening of the spine and, in my experience of researching Dachshund puppy breeders, very, very, very few (if any) in the US actually do.
Can I Assess IVDD Without Calcification Screening or Genetic Testing?
Although X-ray screenings (and genetic testing to a significantly lesser degree) can be helpful tools in determining whether your Dachshund has IVDD and may suffer a related back injury, neither method is foolproof.
The only way to truly know if your Dachshund has IVDD is for an injury to occur and for a veterinarian to diagnose IVDD as the cause.
Therefore, it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of IVDD and get your dog to a veterinarian right away if you see them.
Signs and symptoms of IVDD
So what are the signs and symptoms that could mean your dog is suffering from an IVDD-related back or neck injury?
Signs and symptoms will indicate your Dachshund is experiencing pain and potentially mobility issues.
The most common signs of pain are:
- Doesn’t want to go up stairs or jump on furniture
- Shivering or shaking
- Rapid or shallow breathing
- Loss of appetite
- Tense abdomen/belly
- Standing with their back hunched
- Holding the head down or at an angle
- Yelping or crying out if you touch them or try to pick them up
- hiding in a corner or den
The most common signs of partial or full paralysis (mobility issues) are:
- Walking wobbly or “drunk”
- Unable to stand up
- Unable to wag tail
- Dragging legs
- Unable to lift head
What to Do if You Suspect a Disk Herniation
Time is of the essence if you suspect your dog is suffering from a disk herniation and fully or partially compressed nerve.
The first thing to do is prevent your dog from moving around.
If they are in severe pain, they may restrict themselves. If not, put them in a crate or wrap them in a towel and hold them.
Immediately take your dog to the vet. Take them to an emergency clinic if you have to.
A veterinarian will determine the cause of your Dachshund’s back pain or lameness and determine whether it is IVDD or something else.
This article about steps to take if your Dachshund is suddenly paralyzed will provide more information about what to do if you suspect IVDD.
How to Prevent IVDD
That heading is a trick – you can’t prevent IVDD (because the primary cause is genetic)
However, there are some things you can do to help minimize the frequency or severity of related injuries.
Keeping your Dachshund in bubble wrap and treating them like they are fragile glass is not one of them.
There is some evidence that keeping your Dachshund active – even using stairs – to produce strong muscles and support a proper weight helps to prevent IVDD.
Other things you can do are:
- Give your dog supplements
- Regularly exercise your Dachshund
- Do exercises that strengthen your Dachshund core, spine-supporting muscles
- Don’t allow your Dachshund to regularly jump off of tall furniture (no taller than they are long is my rule so it’s more like a big step to them)
- Use ramps to help your Dachshund get up and down from furniture
- Be careful when you pick them up – use two hands and support their rear end while you lift their chest
Final Thoughts on Testing for IVDD in Dachshunds
Scientists and veterinarians have made progress in regard to testing a Dachshund for IVDD.
Both screening for calcifications on X-ray and genetic testing for the presence of the FGF4 retrogene on chromosome 12 are imperfect.
Of the two methods, the calcification screening and grading method has been around the longest and is the most reliable.
At this point, given that either method is not a 100% predictor of IVDD, I am not sure I want to hear the results because I don’t want to fear something that might not happen.
Given the high incidence of IVDD in Dachshunds, I think assuming your Dachshund will experience a back problem sometime in their life is the most reasonable, and cheapest, way to address this issue.
Knowing the signs and getting any injury addressed early is key in making sure an IVDD episode doesn’t permanently debilitate your Dachshund or lead to euthanasia.
You can help minimize any back issues by taking precautions against it and by ensuring the funds are there if surgery is required, either by putting money away in a savings account or by investing in pet insurance. Or both.
The bottom line is though, you can’t prevent a back injury if your Dachshund is genetically predisposed to it.
- Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD), AURA Veterinary (formerly Fitzpatrick Referrals Oncology)
- Chondrodystrophy: What It Is and Why We Seem to Like It So Much Lecture, Dr. Bannasch DVM PhD, Chair in Genetics School of Veterinary Medicine University of California Davis
- Chondrodystrophy (CDDY and IVDD) and Chondrodysplasia (CDPA), University of California Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory
- Breeding schemes for intervertebral disc disease in dachshunds: Is disc calcification score preferable to genotyping of the FGF4 retrogene insertion on CFA12?, Canine Medicine and Genetics Study
- Current Understanding of the Genetics of Intervertebral Disc Degeneration, Peter J. Dickinson and Danika L. Bannasch, University of California Davis
- New advice on Dachshund spinal health in paper, Dr Helle Friis Proschowsky, WSAVA Hereditary Disease Committee (HDC) Member
- What do the X-ray scores mean?, Dachshund Health UK
- Dodgerslist- Disc Disease – IVDD Education & Support Facebook Post (comments about genetic testing and results/opinions about how it was a bit useless for Dachshunds)