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Intervertebral Disk Disease - Back Problems with the Boxer Dog

What is Canine Disk Disease (IVD or IVDD)?

On a dog’s spinal column are disks; these are cushion-type features that absorb the movements of the dog’s back. The disk has 2 layers, one is the outer layer wish is hard yet flexible, somewhat like cartilage. The other layer is the inner layer which is a gel-like substance.

Over the course of a dog's life, there is a very gradual deterioration of the discs and therefore older, senior Boxer dogs may have some back problems. This normal age related condition is referred to as spondylosis.

However, with IVD, this is a fast moving degenerative process that often begins early in a Boxer dog's life, during the first 2 years.

As the discs weaken, the inner layer migrates and presses on the dog’s spinal cord; this can be either partially or fully.

With Boxers, this disease is often at its peak when the dog is between 7 and 8 years old.

What Causes This

IVD is currently classified as having an unknown mode of inheritance. This means that it is not yet understood if this is indeed a genetic disease. 

While some people assume that injury or trauma (jumping off of a high area onto a non-absorbent floor, etc.) can cause this, this is also up for debate. 

Some Boxers with IVD are suspected of having some type of injury or trauma and some have not.

Since more needs to be learned about this, a male with with even a mild case of IVD should not be used as a sire and of course a female with back problems should never be bred. Additionally, owners should take care that a Boxer does not overdo things when jumping, running, etc. 

The Symptoms

In the beginning stages, a dog may not show any signs or symptoms. As it progresses, there are several symptoms that are difficult to miss.

Pain in the back or neck – Your dog may whine when moving, may retreat (many dogs want to be alone when in pain, as a defense mechanism) or aggression (another defense mechanism)

Loss of motion – Your dog will be unable to do things that he was once able to. Your Boxer may have trouble rising, walking, climbing stairs, etc.

Loss of coordination – There is often a loss of fine motor skills. A dog may stumble, wobble, etc.

Weakness of the legs – In severe cases a dog will drag his legs as he tries to scoot along the floor instead of walking

Loss of bladder or bowel control – A dog that is normally very well house trained will begin to have “accidents” in the home

Whining, crying or letting out a yelp when the head or back is touched or when exercising

Raising a front limb as if something were irritating it

Paralysis – If not treated early enough or if treatment is unsuccessful 

It is not uncommon for owners to believe that their dog has a stomachache during the initial, early phase; it is only when the Boxer is brought to the veterinarian's for a checkup that this back problem is diagnosed.


The dog's behavior will most likely be all that the veterinarian needs to see in order to know that the dog has a back problem. X-rays are sometimes performed. It should be noted that an x-ray is not necessarily needed to diagnose this if the dog is to be treated at home with medication. If surgery is to be performed, it is then that the radiographs play a very important role to pinpoint the exact disc that is causing the problem.

Even with full spinal x-rays, a diseased disc can be missed. This is because discs are not seen on radiographs unless they have calcified. And this calcification only occurs in later stages.

If the x-ray alone is not telling enough, other tests including a myelogram, an MRI and/or a CT scan may be performed.
When a myelogram is taken, a dye is injected into the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord. This specialized dye allows a surgeon to see the otherwise invisible spinal cord and discs. This is done under anesthesia.


Treatment Overview

Boxer dogs with this back problem do have some hope in recovering. A good vet will make every effort to keep the dog as comfortable as possible.

With mild cases, a combination of medication and rest may allow the dog's body to heal itself. With time the displaced disc material may be reabsorbed.

The dog will receive medication, including:

• Anti-inflammatory medication such as carprofen, meloxicam or deracoxib

• Corticosteroid medications such as prednisone (cortisone) or dexamethasone. These have been shown to help prevent and reverse some of the damage to the spinal cord affected by contusion and compression

• Muscle relaxants

• Antibiotics may be given if there are bladder problems

Some of these medications can cause upset stomach for dogs and for that reason an antacid may also be prescribed.

Rest is Very Important

During this time, the goal will be for a dog to have the above medications while resting in order to allow the back to heal. The medicine may cause a dog to feel a lot better before there is any healing reabsorption of the disk tissue. Therefore, for this reason, owners must enforce rest even if a dog is resistant to it.

For at least 3 weeks, a dog should not be allowed to:

• Run
• Jump
• Be overly active in any way

Owners may need to crate their Boxer or confine the dog to a gated off area to prevent too much movement.

The use of an orthopedic dog bed is highly recommended.

Bladder Control

Many owners find that the use of canine diapers come in handy if the dog cannot control his bladder and/or bowel. While this is more commonly seen with small breed dogs, dog diapers for larger breeds are manufactured as well. If there is no improvement with rest and mediation, surgery may be advised.

Harness VS Collar

For Boxer dogs with any sort of back problem and particularly those with any form of IVD, it is imperative to use a harness and NOT a collar when the dog is on leash. A collar can be used for ID purposes. However, a harness should be used not only during this time of rest and healing, but for the rest of the dog's life.


With severe cases, strong doses of medication may be tried for a short time. However, if there is not a rapid improvement, surgery will be quickly recommended. For Boxers with moderate to severe IVD (IVDD), the pain and discomfort can be intolerable and surgery is often the only recourse.

Mild Yet Reoccurring Cases

When a dog has ongoing bouts of mild IVD, he is at risk for acute paralysis. For this reason, if a Boxer has had 4 cases of mild IVD, he should be considered a candidate for surgery to repair the problem and prevent paralysis.


As mentioned above, dogs with either severe IVD or dogs that have had 4 cases of mild IVD are considered candidates for back surgery. A board-certified canine neurosurgeon should perform this operation.

There are 2 types of surgical procedures that can be done:

1) Fenestration. This is a limited type that removes the degenerate center of the disc

2) Ventral decompression. This involves the complete removal of the displaced disc material

Prognosis is quite good and there can be astonishing recovery even for Boxer dogs that had been paralyzed by this disease. After a full recovery, the majority of dogs are able to walk, run, play, exercise and importantly, live normal lives without being in pain.

Unfortunately, there will be some dogs that will have permanent paralysis even with proper medication and the best of surgical care. For these dogs, if the pain is under control, the dog may be able to live a quality life with the use of a K-9 cart, which is the equivalent of a human wheelchair.

Alternative Treatments

Acupuncture - In cases where a Boxer dog has a high sensitivity to medications commonly given for this back disease and for one reason or another is not a candidate for surgery, acupuncture is an alternative treatment. There are varying rates of success; though it is most successful on dogs that have only pain as a symptom or have a mild case of IVDD.

This is sanctioned by the American Veterinary Medical Association. If this is being considered, it should be performed by a board-certified veterinarian. 

Chiropractic manipulation - This is NOT sanctioned by the American Veterinary Medical Association and may do much more harm than good. While this approach may work well for humans, it can do quite a bit of damage to the canine body due to the different anatomy of the spine.
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