Intervertebral disc disease (ivdd) in French bulldogs – should you be worried?

Intervertebral disc disease (ivdd) is a gradual degenerative neurological condition and the most common cause of paralysis in dogs. The risk of ivdd is higher in so-called chondrodystrophic breeds like Dachshunds and French bulldogs. Ivdd is also the most common neurological disease in French bulldogs. So what exactly is ivdd and should you be worried about your Frenchie?

While I am a veterinarian, this article is not intended to replace professional veterinary advice. If you have any medical concerns about your pet, consult your vet immediately. Always seek professional assistance if you are unsure of your pet’s health.

sleeping french bulldog puppy

What is Intervertebral disc disease (ivdd)

I know those first two sentences of this article sounded complicated, but I promise I’ll make it easy to understand ☺️ So here we go:

The spinal column is composed of small bones – the vertebrae. They build a mechanical structure that supports the whole body. On top of that, the vertebrae protect the spinal cord that runs in the spinal canal from the brain to the tailbone.

The spinal cord is a nerve bundle. You can imagine it as a highway for nerve impulses that run from the brain to the rest of the body and reversely from the body to the brain.

And as with any other joint, you need a cushion between the bones. Otherwise, they would rub and cause severe inflammation. This is where intervertebral discs come into play. The intervertebral discs are cushions between the vertebrae. They protect the bones, allow movement, and absorb mechanical shocks.

They have a fibrous outer rim (called annulus fibrosus) and a squishy jelly-like center called the nucleus pulposus, which functions as a shock absorber.

The mechanism is simple – the vertebrae protect the spinal cord and between the vertebrae are the intervertebral discs. Still with me? 😊 Perfect.

So you have the spine with vertebrae, the spinal canal with the spinal cord, and the intervertebral discs

Intervertebral disc disease occurs when one or more discs between the bones rupture, bulge, or burst into the spinal canal (the space containing the spinal cord). This compresses the spinal nerves and can even directly damage them. Depending on the severity this can cause pain, loss of certain functions, and even paralysis. 

The problem with the nerves is that they have very low healing ability. Therefore any nerve damage heals very slowly, if ever. You need to be very patient and not rush things.

Infographic ivvd in french bulldogs

What causes ivdd in French bulldogs

Sadly, studies have shown that French bulldogs are prone to several neurological conditions. The most common is intervertebral disc disease.

2 different mechanisms can cause ivdd in dogs – Hansen type I. and Hansen type II.

  • Hansen Type I. ivdd is most common in smaller dogs and short-legged breeds. Remember the squishy jelly-like center of the intervertebral discs? In this case, the gelatinous substance in the center becomes hard and is no longer compressible. Normal movements like twisting or jumping put a lot of strain on the hardened center. And then with one wrong jump or a twist, the center explodes out of its shell into the space containing the spinal cord and nerves. This compresses the spinal cord and causes severe nerve damage. If you ever heard the term disc herniation, this is what they are talking about. It’s when the disc material bursts into the spinal canal.
  • Hansen type II. ivdd is a slow degenerative process we can see often in German shepherds or labrador retrievers. It’s also similar to human disc disease. In this case, there is a protrusion or bulging of the outer part of the intervertebral disc. It’s a slow process, that’s why we can see it mainly in older dogs.

Hansen Type II is more common in larger dogs like German shepherd.

Hansen type I. occurs in smaller dogs and chondrodystrophic breeds – here’s that weird term again 🙂 Chondrodystrophic dog breeds are breeds with disproportionally short and curved legs, like Dachshund, French bulldog, or Basset hound.

At what age do French bulldogs get ivdd

Because intervertebral disc disease in French bulldogs is caused by their body structure, they can suffer from ivdd from an early age. However, defining the age when the ivdd starts is challenging – the histopathological (microscopic) evidence of ivdd is often present in affected dogs before they are 1 year old.

So to put it in other words – we can see microscopic changes associated with ivdd already in very young dogs.

Sadly, French bulldogs can suffer from ivdd and/or require surgery as young as 3-4 years old, in rare cases even younger.

Is ivdd genetic in French bulldogs?

The association between ivdd and certain breeds with disproportionally short legs has been documented since the early twentieth century. Further studies have shown that genetics does play a major role in intervertebral disc disease.

Sadly, the genes associated with ivdd are also the ones responsible for short legs and lower height.

So why are French bulldogs, Dachshund, and other similar breeds prone to ivdd? Because of the way we breed them. It’s tied to their body structure.

Intervertebral disc disease is a byproduct of a genetic mutation we chose to enforce in these dog breeds. We wanted short-legged dogs to look like they do now. Ivdd and other hereditary diseases are the consequences of these breeding strategies and breed standards.

So yes, there is a strong genetic predisposition for ivdd in French bulldogs.

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How common is ivdd in French bulldogs

The truth is, we don’t know (yet). There is just no study at this time to give you a direct answer to this question.

However, a study was done to evaluate the prevalence of neurological disorders in Frenchies. According to this study, out of 2846 French bulldogs admitted between the years 2002 and 2016, 533 showed 00neurological signs (18.7%). Out of those, 343 dogs had a proper diagnosis of some neurological disease and were accepted into this study. The results showed that ivdd was by far the most common – 45.5%. The median age when the dogs showed neurological symptoms was around 4 years old.

The conclusion from this study is that around 18% of French bulldogs displayed neurological symptoms. And that ivvd was the most common diagnosis, making up to 45% of all cases.

2 different studies also showed that French bulldogs are prone to epidural hemorrhage if they suffer from ivdd. This means that they often have extensive bleeding in the affected area. This further complicates things.

What are the signs of ivdd in dogs?

The severity depends on how bad the compression or the damage to the spinal cord is and if there are other complications (for example epidural bleeding).

The signs range from pain to loss of function, depending on the location and the severity.

The most common symptoms of ivdd are severe pain around the affected area, which impacts the dog’s movements and agility, and an abnormal posture.

There is also usually a sudden onset.

Sometimes dog owners report sudden onset of ivdd symptoms right after jumping or twisting. They are usually not aware of this, but they actually witnessed when the disc center shot into the spinal cord. And sometimes the pet owners can’t tell exactly when it happened, but can point to a day when the dog suddenly started to behave differently. The sudden onset of symptoms in younger dogs is the most common difference between Hansen I. and Hansen II. type of intraventricular disease.

The following symptoms are most common in case a dog has ivdd:

  • Intense pain in the neck or back region
  • Limping or lameness
  • Dragging of back legs
  • Shivering, panting, and other displays of anxious behavior
  • Decreased activity level, unwillingness to move or jump, weakness
  • Depending on the location of the lesion – hunched back or hunched neck with tense muscles
  • Paralysis – complete loss of limb function (front or hind)
  • Loss of bladder control or/and loss of bowel control
  • In most severe cases the patients lose the ability to feel pain sensations in affected regions

If your dog shows any of the above-mentioned signs, take him to a vet as soon as possible. Time is of the essence in these cases.

How is ivdd in dogs diagnosed?

Take your pet to the vet as soon as possible, time plays a major role in the recovery rate.

Your vet will need to do a full physical and neurological exam, as well as blood and urine tests to rule out other possible causes of back pain.

To assess the severity of the condition, he will need to do further imagining tests: X-rays, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), or a CT scan (computer tomography).

The diagnostic protocol for ivdd is:

  • full physical examination
  • neurological examination
  • blood and urine analysis
  • X-rays
  • MRI or CT scan
  • Myelography (in some cases)

X-rays are good for accessing the spaces between the vertebrae and disc center calcifications, but they show only bones, not the spinal cord. MRI can show the exact location of the spinal cord compression as well as how severe the damage is. MRI or CT scan is also necessary for surgical planning.

The downside is, that if your vet has a small local clinic, chances are he doesn’t have an MRI or CT scanner. He would need to refer you to a better-equipped veterinary hospital. In case your pup needs surgery, you’ll also need to go to a veterinary hospital that specializes in these types of surgeries.

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Treatment of ivdd in French bulldogs

Treatment can range from medical management to emergency surgery, depending on the severity of the condition.

In mild cases, the treatment can be conservative with a focus on reducing the swelling and inflammation and managing the pain. Your dog will receive pain and anti-inflammatory medications. Please don’t underestimate the negative impact pain has on the body. Proper pain management is very important to help your pup heal. He might also receive muscle relaxers.

Your dog needs to be in strict confinement (usually in a crate or a cage) for a longer time to help the body heal the damage. Disadvantages of non-surgical treatment are a higher rate of recurrence of clinical symptoms and a higher rate of persistent neurological deficits.

In more complicated cases, the chances that your dog will walk again and be pain-free are much better with surgical intervention.

Your vet will assess which treatment option is best for your dog.

Cases, where the dog can’t feel any pain sensations, are always surgical emergencies. If you pinch the toes of your pup’s leg and he doesn’t feel it, he needs surgery as soon as possible.

In all cases, dogs need pain medication, rehabilitation, and physical therapy. Physiotherapy plays a big role in the treatment of ivdd and it shouldn’t be left out.

Therapeutic massage will help your dog relieve any muscle spasms he might have. Talk to your vet and learn to do it properly, your pup will love you for it 😊

They also need frequent monitoring.

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Can French bulldogs recover from ivdd

Yes, they can. However, it depends on the severity of the damage to the spinal cord and nerves. The prognosis is much better if the treatment starts as soon as possible.

You also need to follow your treatment plan. Believe me, your vet has a good reason for everything he puts into your pup’s treatment plan.

Nerves recover very slowly and any spine injury is not just painful but also needs a lot of time to heal. You need to be patient. You need to prohibit rough play with other dogs, hopping on or off the furniture, going up and down the stairs, running, or jumping.

Some dogs need a few weeks before they are able to walk again. Sadly, in some cases, there is no improvement even after ivdd surgery and the dog remains paralyzed for life.

However, many paralyzed dogs enjoy a happy and active life with specialized mobility carts. Your vet will help you choose a dog wheelchair that’s best suited for your pup.

A limiting factor can be the loss of bladder control – a lot of dogs with hind legs paralysis lose the ability to voluntarily empty their bladder. This means they either have a loose bladder (which involuntarily empties when it’s full) or have to have their bladder emptied manually by the owner. It sounds scary, but it’s not that hard to learn. You just can’t forget about it or you can cause a potentially life-threatening medical condition.

One thing I have to mention – even when the surgery is successful and the problem with that one disc (or discs) is fixed, we cannot say for sure that it won’t happen again in another part of the spine with some other degenerative disc 😩

How to prevent ivdd in French bulldogs

Sadly, it’s very difficult to prevent ivdd in any dog, not just in a Frenchie.

What might help is maintaining an optimal body weight – and let’s be honest here, every 3rd Frenchie I see is overweight. If you are not sure if your pup is overweight or if you don’t know how to lose weight safely, talk to your vet. He can create a specialized weight control plan tailored to your pup’s needs with activities that are safe for him. French bulldogs are susceptible to many health conditions and obesity is a huge risk factor for many of them.

Another thing that might help is avoiding explosive movements and jumping. So no frisbee or other “stay-stay-stay-fetch!” games, no hopping on and off the couch, no rough playing with other dogs…

I know it’s hard, especially if you have a young dog.

You can also work with a physiotherapy specialist on strengthening your pup’s muscles and learning how to give him a therapeutic massage. I don’t know any dog (or human) that wouldn’t benefit from a proper therapeutic massage plan. Especially if your dog has back problems ☺️

It’s simple to learn and has an enormous impact on your pup’s well-being. And believe me, yours as well. There’s just something profoundly relaxing in massaging your pup… ☺️

And if you see any signs that your dog might be in pain, call your vet as soon as possible.

So that’s it from me, hope you found the answer you were looking for. If you have a personal story you would like to share please leave a comment, I love when people tell me about their pups 🥰

Lots of love and good luck with your Frenchie 🤗

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