Intervertebral Disk Disease in French Bulldogs | IVDD | Understanding this Scary Disease

By: Danielle Harris

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Introduction

French Bulldogs, with their bat-like ears and smushed faces, have won the hearts of many. Yet, their unique and endearing appearance also makes them prone to certain health conditions.

One such condition is Intervertebral Disk Disease (IVDD).

What is Intervertebral Disk Disease?

Intervertebral Disk Disease (IVDD) is a serious and often painful condition that affects the spine. The disease occurs when the cushioning discs between the vertebrae of the spinal column either bulge or burst (herniate) into the spinal cord space.

These discs then press on the nerves running through the spinal cord, causing pain, nerve damage, and in severe cases, paralysis.

In simpler terms, imagine the discomfort you’d feel if the cushions on your sofa suddenly became hard and lumpy. That’s how uncomfortable an affected dog might feel. But why does this happen?

Remember this condition is not limited to french bulldogs. This can happen in ANY breed. Often seen in dachshunds, cocker spaniels, corgis, german shepherds, and any other long spined and dwarf breeds.

It could even happen to Winston! Winner of Westminster!

French Bulldog XRay
intervertebral disk disease
French Bulldog XRay

The Anatomy of a French Bulldog’s Spine

To understand why IVDD occurs, let’s first dive into the anatomy of a French Bulldog’s spine.

Just like humans, French Bulldogs have a complex spinal structure. Their spine consists of numerous small bones, known as vertebrae, which are separated by cushion-like discs.

These discs act as shock absorbers, preventing the vertebrae from rubbing against each other and allowing the spine to flex and bend.

However, in IVDD, these shock absorbers start to malfunction. The discs begin to harden (degenerate), and instead of cushioning the vertebrae, they bulge or burst into the spinal cord space. This puts pressure on the nerves in the spinal cord, leading to the symptoms of IVDD.

Notice in the picture above how the first two vertebrae have small clear disks visible, the second two are thicker cloudy blobs.

But why are French Bulldogs more prone to this condition?

Why are French Bulldogs Prone to Intervertebral Disk Disease?

Credit: https://www.matthews.carolinavet.com/site/pet-health-blog/2020/08/14/ivdd-intervertebral-disc-disease-in-dogs

Genetic Factors

Certain breeds, including French Bulldogs, are genetically predisposed to IVDD.

This is due to a type of dwarfism known as chondrodystrophy, which affects the development of their discs.

Dogs with chondrodystrophy have shorter legs and longer backs, which puts additional strain on their spine and leads their discs to harden and degenerate prematurely.

89.2% of french Bulldogs are chondrodystrophy dogs. Its incredibly rare to find one that has 1 or no copies of the gene at all.

It doesn’t mean that all french bulldogs will be affected by this type of dwarfism in a negative way. Environmental factors play a huge role!

Physical Attributes

The unique structure of French Bulldogs might make them look adorable, but it also puts additional strain on their spine.

Their short legs and long back are a risk factor for spinal problems, including IVDD. Just like carrying a heavy backpack for a long time can cause back pain, the physical attributes of French Bulldogs can lead to spinal issues.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Intervertebral Disk Disease

Recognizing the symptoms of IVDD early can help in managing the disease and preventing further damage. But what signs should you look out for?

Early Warning Signs

  • In the early stages of IVDD, you may notice that your dog is reluctant to jump or is showing signs of pain when moving.
  • They might cry out when picked up or when moving in certain ways.
  • They might also display a hunched back or walk with a stiff or weird gait.
  • Heavy Panting

These signs can be easy to overlook or attribute to other issues, so it’s important to be observant.Think of it as your dog trying to tell you something’s wrong. Frenchies are also very stubborn dogs. So they may not show signs at all!

What are the symptoms of IVDD in dogs?

Intervertebral Disc Disease can occur in any of the discs in your dog’s spine and symptoms of this condition will depend upon which part of the spine is affected, and how severe the damage is. Symptoms of IVDD may also appear suddenly or come on gradually. If your dog is displaying any of the following symptoms seek veterinary care as soon as possible. IVDD can be very painful for dogs and early treatment is essential for preventing the condition from becoming more severe or causing irreversible damage to your dog’s spine.

Symptoms of Neck Intervertebral Disc Disease (Cervical IVDD)

Cervical IVDD occurs in the discs of the dog’s neck. If you may notice one or more of the following symptoms, which can affect the whole body and range from mild to very severe contact your vet for immediate advice, or visit your closest animal emergency hospital for veterinary care:

Spinal Zones in dogs
  • Head held low
  • Arching back
  • Shivering or crying
  • Reluctance to move
  • Unsteadiness in all 4 legs
  • Inability to walk normally
  • Knuckling of all 4 paws
  • Inability to support own weight
  • Inability to stand
  • Inability to feel all 4 feet and legs

Symptoms of Back Intervertebral Disc Disease (Thoracolumbar IVDD)

Dogs with Thoracolumbar IVDD have a damaged disc causing issues in their back region and may display one or more of the following symptoms. Symptoms of Thoracolumbar IVDD mainly affect the mid to back portion of the dog’s body and can range from mild to very severe:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Tense belly
  • Weakness in hind legs
  • Crossing back legs when walking
  • Inability to walk normally
  • Knuckling of back paws, or dragging rear legs
  • Inability to support their own weight
  • Unable to move or feel back legs

Symptoms of Lower-Back Intervertebral Disc Disease (Lumbosacral IVDD)

If your dog is suffering from lumbosacral IVDD the problematic disc or discs are located in your dog’s lower back region. Symptoms of lumbosacral IVDD typically affect the very back of the dog’s body and may range from mild to very severe:

  • Pain and/or difficulty jumping
  • Limp tail
  • Urinary or fecal incontinence
  • Dilated anus

Advanced Symptoms

As the disease progresses, the symptoms become more severe.

The dog might show signs of significant weakness or even paralysis in their legs. They might also lose control of their bladder and bowel.

In some cases, they might also display changes in behavior due to pain and discomfort.

If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s crucial to seek veterinary attention immediately.

It’s like rushing to the emergency room when someone suddenly feels severe chest pain.

Every minute counts. The sooner the problem is addressed, the likelihood of positive recovery increases.

Diagnosing Intervertebral Disk Disease in French Bulldogs

Diagnosis of IVDD involves a combination of a detailed history, physical examination, and imaging studies.

This is similar to how doctors diagnose our health conditions. But how does a vet do it?

Veterinary Examination

The first step in diagnosing IVDD is a thorough physical and neurological exam.

The vet will look for signs of pain, difficulty in movement, changes in reflexes, and any loss of sensation.

They will also take a detailed history, including the onset and progression of symptoms.

This is like detective work, where the vet tries to put together all the clues to find out what’s going wrong.

Imaging Techniques

The next step in diagnosis is imaging. X-rays can show changes in the spaces between the vertebrae, indicating possible disc degeneration.

However, X-rays alone can’t definitively diagnose IVDD.

More advanced imaging techniques, like CT scans and MRIs, can provide a detailed view of the spine and help confirm the diagnosis.

These techniques can show the exact location and extent of the disc herniation. It’s like having a map of what’s happening inside your furry friend’s body.

IVDD x ray
ivdd mri image
pinched spinal cord in middle vertebrae

MRI Imaging

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Spinal Cord Imaging

Why Use MRI?

Diseases that affect the spinal cord require advanced imaging for accurate diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, surgical planning and post-surgical review. While, there are several options for this advanced imaging, the superior choice is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

MRI In Comparison

Magnetic resonance imaging or MRI, assesses radio frequency pulses generated when protons are placed in a high field strength magnet.

This allows MRI to assess water content in different tissues of the body and provides very specific information about the inside of the spinal cord.

In contrast, computed tomography (CT) and myelography, are both based on older X-ray technology.

Myelography is a time-consuming and technically-difficult procedure involving the placement of a needle next to or through the spinal cord and the injection of an agent, which can cause seizure, a worsening of neurologic grade, and death from arachnoid hemorrhage in the brain.

The accuracy of a myelogram can be improved when combined with CT but this does not lower the associated risks.

Lateral Myelogram

Lateral Myelogram – Lumbar vertebrae are numbered and arrows indicated area of suspected disk extrusion.

MRI – Safe, Accurate & Effective

MRI is the preferred choice for all spinal cord imaging because:

  • MRI is 100% accurate in predicting level and side of a disk extrusion.3.4,5 MRI can also be used to distinguish between spinal cord swelling from compression which requires surgery and swelling or infarction which does not require surgery.’ As a result, choosing MRI reduces the risk of a incorrect and/or unnecessary spinal surgery.
  • In paraplegic dogs treated with surgery MRI is more important than deep pain status in predicting recovery. In one paper, 13/13 of deep pain negative dogs made a complete recovery following surgery when their MRI did not show disease inside the spinal cord. Importantly, MRI provides an accurate prediction of recovery from spinal surgery in paraplegic dogs.

MRI can provide a rapid, non-invasive evaluation of the subarachnoid space that appears similar to conventional myelogram but without the

MRI can accurately diagnosis most spinal cord conditions, not just disk disease.

Choosing MRI allows us to provide specific & accurate answers and prognosis, whereas a myelogram or CT only indicate that there is spinal cord compression and surgery could be helpful.

Treatment Options for French Bulldogs with Intervertebral Disk Disease

Treatment for IVDD depends on the severity of the disease and the dog’s overall health.

It can range from conservative management to surgery. But what does this involve?

Non-Surgical Treatments

Non-surgical treatments are usually considered for dogs with mild symptoms. This includes medications to reduce swelling and pain, along with strict rest.

Strict rest involves limiting your dog’s activity to prevent further damage to the spine.

This might mean confining your dog to a crate or a small room, with minimal walking.

This is similar to how we humans need bed rest when we’re feeling unwell.

Surgical Treatments

In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the ruptured disc material and relieve pressure on the spinal cord.

This is usually recommended for dogs that are in severe pain or those that have lost the ability to walk.

The decision to proceed with surgery depends on several factors, including the dog’s overall health and the owner’s financial capabilities.

This surgery can cost anywhere from $10,000 – $15,000 depending on severity.

This is why health insurance is so important. Start your pets insurance the day you welcome them home!

Remember recovery will include 4-6 weeks of strict crate rest and then slow introduction to activity.

Here at Pepite, we use Trupanion but there are a lot of options out there!

It’s quite a process, but it often gives the best chance for recovery.

Preventative and Decompression Surgery- Laser Disk Ablation

Percutaneous Laser Disc Ablation (PLDA) is a minimally invasive preventative procedure for thoracolumbar degenerative disc disease in dogs. This procedure was developed by Dr. Kenneth E. Bartels at Oklahoma State University.

Hundreds of dogs have undergone percutaneous disc ablation since the procedure was clinically introduced in 1993.

PLDA is recommended as a preventative procedure to reduce the risk of disc extrusion into the spinal canal in dogs with a prior history of disc disease, or for dogs that are at a high risk of disc rupture like dachshunds (chondrodystrophic breeds).

If your dog has recovered from surgery this is also a good option to prevent further recurrence.

The procedure has been found to be over 97% effective with only 9 dogs (2.6%) over a 10 year period having recurrence of signs that required surgical intervention. All nine dogs recovered uneventfully.

This procedure involves removing the material that is pressing on the spinal cord.

Procedure

Pre-surgical testing, including blood work may be performed to ensure your pet is healthy enough for surgery. 

After your dog is anesthetized, his or her back will be shaved, and the skin overlying the vertebral column will be aseptically prepared. Eight needles will be inserted through the skin into the center of the intervertebral discs. Imaging techniques are used to ensure proper needle placement. A laser fiber will be placed through each needle, and the laser is used to vaporize and coagulate the inner disc material, which removes and stabilizes the disc’s center so it is unlikely to rupture in the future.

Myelomalacia – Be aware of this complication

myelmalacia
Myelmalacia

When a severe spinal cord injury renders a dog unable to move its legs or feel its toes, about 10-15% of dogs will go on to develop a devastating condition called myelomalacia, whether successfully treated for the initial problem or not.

This fatal condition manifests as a rapid and progressive necrosis (death) of the spinal cord

The spinal cord is a long band of nerve tissue fed by a system of blood vessels. Trauma to the spinal cord can cause injuries to these blood vessels, such as hemorrhaging and clogging. When normal blood flow to the spinal cord is interrupted, nerve tissue dies, causing the spinal cord to soften.

Softening of the spinal cord starts around the site of the injury and then progresses, moving along the entire length of the spine.

Myelomalacia causes permanent paralysis in dogs and proves fatal once it reaches the part of the spinal cord that supplies nerves to the diaphragm, which controls breathing.

Neurological symptoms caused by compression of the spinal cord are graded on a scale of 1-5. Grade 5 means a dog is unable to move or feel its legs. A dog in this condition has about a 10-15% chance of developing myelomalacia any time within a week of the initial injury, regardless of treatment.

Sadly, this chance increases to 25-30% in French bulldogs, which is one of the breeds most prone to intervertebral disc disease.

Unfortunately, there is no way to predict, prevent, or treat myelomalacia in dogs at this time, humane euthanasia will be required.

Credit to: https://sevneurology.com/blog/myelomalacia-in-dogs/

Preventive Measures and Care Tips

While it’s not always possible to prevent IVDD, especially in breeds that are genetically predisposed, there are some measures you can take to reduce the risk and manage the disease.

Just because a breed is genetically predisposed, doesn’t mean they’re going to develop ivdd either!

Diet and Exercise

Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial in preventing and managing IVDD.

Obesity can put additional strain on the spine, increasing the risk of disc degeneration.

A balanced diet, combined with regular, moderate exercise, can help maintain a healthy weight and keep the spine strong and flexible.

Think of it as a gym routine for your dog!

Baby Gate for french bulldogs

Environment

Its crucial with french bulldogs to try to maintain proper activity. Dogs will be dogs. But maintaining what you CAN control is important.

Limit the use of stairs, we only allow our frenchies to go up small steps, such as the ones on your front patio leading to your house.

All other steps have baby gates.

No high jumping. Training your french bulldog in agility and cool tricks may look fun, but “placing” on to high objects can be dangerous.

Falling from heights can be a risk to ANY dog, so avoid these falls at all costs.

Try to train your frenchie to use a ramp to get up and down from higher objects such as your bed or the couch. You can also try to train your frenchie to sit and wait to be picked up to be placed in your favorite cuddle spot.

If your dogs are as stubborn as mine, wont use a ramp, and wont quit the jumping, put dog beds at the base of your couch. We like orthopedic dog beds or pet cots. These are great for absorbing impact.

I allow my dogs to run and play, after all, if a dog isn’t allowed to be a dog, what kind of life is that?

Carpet and rugs are highly recommended. This prevents any accidents during zoomie time. You don’t want your dog to take off and slide into a wall or slipping and falling into the hard floor while wrestling his sister/brother.

It may be funny at the time but these “cute” crash accidents cause impact to the disks.

Carpets also help with traction during recovery.

Always use harnesses. Collars can be used for short potty breaks but long walks and public appearances require harnesses for this breed.

Regular Vet Check-ups

Regular vet check-ups can help identify early signs of IVDD and prevent them from escalating.

The vet can monitor your dog’s weight, check for any signs of pain or discomfort, and advise on the best diet and exercise regime. It’s like having regular health check-ups for ourselves.

In conclusion, Intervertebral Disk Disease is a serious condition that can severely affect the quality of life of your French Bulldog. But with proper knowledge, care, and medical attention, your furry friend can live a comfortable and happy life. It’s all about understanding the disease, recognizing

the signs, taking prompt action, and providing the necessary care.

Life with a French Bulldog with IVDD

Living with a French Bulldog diagnosed with IVDD may require some adjustments. But remember, your pet can still enjoy a good quality of life with your love and care.

Home Adjustments

You may need to make some changes to your home to make it more comfortable for your French Bulldog.

Make sure to provide 3-4 inches of floof in bedding. Dogs that have come home from surgery need a soft space to rest. Hard surfaces do not provide the support needed for recovery and maintenance.

Try out an orthopedic bed!

This could include providing ramps to help them move around without having to jump or climb stairs, using non-slip mats to prevent slipping, and providing a comfortable bed that’s easy for them to get in and out of.

Harnesses are required when walking your dog.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy may also be beneficial for dogs with IVDD.

This could include hydrotherapy (swimming), massage, and specific exercises to improve strength and flexibility.

This is like physiotherapy for humans and can be a vital part of your dog’s recovery or management plan.

Red light therapy has also show to be helpful in recovery.

Support and Care

Perhaps most importantly, dogs with IVDD need lots of love and support.

This could be through spending quality time with them, providing gentle petting or massage, or simply being there for them.

Remember, your pet may be in pain or feeling scared, so your comfort and reassurance can make a big difference.

Assistance to urinate may be needed. The vet will teach you how to do it but with both hands, you will push in on both sides and down, this will express the bladder. have your dog sitting on your knee with a pee pad under you to minimize mess.

Tools

Wheels – if your dog loses mobility, wheels may be an option! They can be expensive but if it means greater mobility for your pet, why not!

Harnesses – ”Help Em Up” harness is the one and only harness that our neurologist recommended. Anything with a brace is frowned upon and can cause more harm than good.

Elevated Feeding Bowls– These are especially helpful in dogs with ivdd in the neck.

Strollers – strollers are a great tool to have! Get your exercise and take your pup with you. It helped us a lot when we were taking him all over to the emergency clinics.

Spinal Zones in french bulldogs

FAQ’s

How long can a French Bulldog live with IVDD?

With proper management, a French Bulldog with IVDD can still live a full lifespan. The key is early detection, prompt treatment, and ongoing care.

Can a French Bulldog recover from IVDD without surgery?

In some cases, yes. Non-surgical treatments can be effective, especially for dogs with mild symptoms. However, in severe cases, surgery may offer the best chance of recovery.

Are there any alternative treatments for IVDD in French Bulldogs?

Some owners choose to explore alternative treatments, such as acupuncture or chiropractic care. However, it’s important to discuss these options with your vet to ensure they’re safe and appropriate for your pet.

How can I make my home more comfortable for a French Bulldog with IVDD?

Providing ramps or stairs to help your dog move around, using non-slip mats, and ensuring they have a comfortable bed can all make your home more IVDD-friendly.

How can I prevent my French Bulldog from getting IVDD?

While you can’t change your dog’s genetics, maintaining a healthy weight, providing regular, moderate exercise, and avoiding activities that strain the spine can all help reduce the risk.

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