Spine and Back Problems in Dogs
Back and Spine Overview
Just like their human friends, dogs often experience back problems at some point in their life. Back issues in dogs can result from something as simple as a slipped disc to more serious conditions such as a spinal birth defect or degenerative myelopathy.
Unfortunately, your dog cannot tell you when their back hurts or what symptoms they are experiencing, it’s up to you to determine when your four-legged friend needs to see the veterinarian.
Signs and Symptoms
There are numerous issues that can cause back or spinal pain in dogs. If your dog is in pain or having trouble doing normal everyday activities they should be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Because back and spinal pain can be caused by a variety of diseases or conditions, determining exactly where the pain is originating and what is causing it may take your vet some time.
Here are some common symptoms that may point to a back or spinal injury in your dog:
- Has trouble doing normal activities. Examples of this would be jumping on the bed or couch or bending down to eat or drink.
- Loss of appetite
- Has trouble turning or raising their head
- Reduced activity level
- Cries or yelps when their back is touched
- Weakness in back legs
- Inability to walk
- Hunched back
- Visible bruises or injuries on their back
- Visible abnormal alignment of the spine (curvature of the spine)
- Pain during defecation
Common Spinal Problems in Dogs
There are dozens of diseases and issues that can cause spine and back problems in dogs. In all cases, a vet should examine the dog to determine the exact reason for back or spinal pain.
Below is an overview of some of the most common back and spine issues in dogs including affected breeds, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment options.
Congenital Vertebral Malformations
This condition is usually the result of a birth defect and is fairly common in certain breeds. Symptoms will vary depending on the location and type of abnormality. Defects that cause compression of the spinal cord tend to be much more serious. Spinal cord compression issues can lead to paralysis and even death. If the malformation is not causing the dog any issues the condition is often left untreated.
Commonly Affected Breeds
Dogs that tend to have spinal defects include:
- Basset Hounds
- Boston Terriers
- Doberman Pinschers
- English Bulldogs
- French Bulldogs
- Lhasa Apso
- Shih Tzu
Symptoms will vary depending on the location and specific type of abnormality and can present at birth or as the dog experiences growth spurts.
A few of more common symptoms of congenital vertebral malformations include:
- Lordosis: This is also referred to as sway back and is the downward curvature of the spine.
- Kyphosis: Arching spine where the spine curves upward.
- Unusual Gait: Trouble walking or uncoordinated movement is often the result of a spinal cord birth defect.
- Paralysis: Partial paralysis can occur in some dogs.
- Incontinence: Inability to control bowel movements or urination.
If your dog has an unusually arched back or has any of the symptoms listed above they should be examined by a veterinarian. A general examination may be followed with an x-ray to determine the exact location and type of deformation. In some cases an MRI or CT scan may also be required.
Treatment will vary depending on the type and severity of the spinal defect. If the dog is not showing severe symptoms or only has a minor posture or gait issue they usually don’t require any treatment.
Defects that are compressing the spinal cord usually require surgery. This usually requires 6-8 weeks of rest to recover from the surgery. In some cases, a brace may be required to help stabilize the area.
Certain spinal issues cannot be treated and if the symptoms are severe a veterinarian may recommend euthanasia.
Spinal defects often result in expensive treatment. Prices can range from $1,200 all the way up to $15,000 for a major surgery.
Disc disease can go under many names, but Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) is one of the most common. IVDD causes the cushioning discs that are sandwiched between the vertebrae to bulge or herniation (burst). This results in the discs pressing on the nerves that run through the spinal cord, causing nerve damage, pain, and in some cases, paralysis.
Commonly Affected Breeds
Dogs that tend to get IVDD defects include:
Symptoms of IVDD include:
- Reluctance to jump
- Pain or lameness in rear legs
- Reduced appetite
- Reduced activity
- Tense back muscles
A complete examination by your vet will usually be followed by an x-ray to determine where a disc has ruptured and if the spinal cord has been injured. It is highly likely that an additional procedure, which injects dye directly into the spine to allow it to be seen on an x-ray, may be required. This procedure, which is called a myelogram, requires anesthesia.
It is also possible that a CT scan and MRI will be necessary to pinpoint the nerve damage.
Treatment plans will vary depending on how severe the damage is to the spinal cord. Minor damage may be treated with anti-inflammatories or steroids, which can help reduce the spinal cord swelling and pain. In addition to medication, the dog will need to rest and be confined to a crate in order to prevent further damage.
Severe damage may require surgery. If the dog is paralyzed or experiencing incontinence, surgery is the best treatment. Surgery removes parts of the vertebrae over the spinal cord, relieving the pressure.
A study done by the University of Calgary, found that surgery dramatically improves the odds of a successful recovery. According to the study, “With respect to non-medical care of SCI patients (surgical options), the evidence is clear that decompressive surgery is beneficial at improving the likelihood of successful sensorimotor recovery following acute prolapse of the intervertebral disc.”
Keeping your dog at the proper weight can help prevent disc injuries, as can using a harness if your dog pulls when on a leash.
Costs can quickly spiral upwards if surgery is required. Expect to spend $2,000 on the low end and up to $12,000 or more if multiple tests and surgery is required.
Degenerative Myelopathy is a non-reversible, progressive disease of the spinal cord. This disease can affect dogs at any age but in most situations it has an initial onset in dogs between the ages of eight and 14 years of age. Degenerative Myelopathy does not have a specific cause and because it is a nonreversible, progressive disease that results in the degeneration of the spinal cord, in most cases it is eventually fatal.
Brain stem neurons can be affected by this disease and in later stages lesions may also present on the spinal cord.
Commonly Affected Breeds
Degenerative myelopathy can affect any breed of dog but these breeds have shown to be more susceptible:
- German Shepherds
- Pembroke Welsh Corgis
- Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
- Rhodesian Ridgebacks
- Irish Setters
Symptoms of degenerative myelopathy include:
- Loss of coordination
- Difficulty walking and running
- Partial or full paralysis of front or rear legs
- Loss of muscle mass
- Loss of the ability to control defecation and urination
- Exaggerated spinal reflexes
Your vet will perform a number of lab tests to exclude a variety of other spinal diseases. In many cases an MRI or CT scan will be performed to check for compressions of the spinal cord or a herniated disc.
There are currently no treatment options that can cure this disease. Increased exercise can help delay progression of the disease and weight gain should be avoided as it adds pressure to the spinal cord. Spinal support may be required. Prognosis is poor as this disease is untreatable and degenerative.
Costs can vary dramatically depending on which tests are performed and what type of spinal support is eventually required.
Osteoarthritis is also known as arthritis or degenerative joint disease. This disease is a permanent and progressive deterioration of the cartilage that surrounds certain joints in your dog. While dogs of all ages can suffer from osteoarthritis, it is most common in older dogs.
Symptoms of osteoarthritis include (note – symptoms may get worse after periods of inactivity or during cold weather):
- Reluctance to walk, climb stairs, jump, or play
- Lagging behind on walks
- Difficulty standing up
- Slow movement
- Pain at the touch
Your veterinarian will do a thorough physical examination to assess your dog’s range of motion as well as any swelling, pain or deformity in their joints. They will also ask you questions concerning your dogs activity levels and if they are showing any symptoms of pain.
Arthritis in dogs can be caused by excessive or abnormal wear on their joints and in some cases a birth defect. Obesity can be a major cause of arthritis as it puts increased stress on the joints. Dogs that have diabetes or are on a long-term steroid treatment may also develop osteoarthritis.
There are currently no medical treatments to cure osteoarthritis. It is possible to slow progression of the disease and help alleviate pain through surgery. Surgeries may involve reconstructing the joint or removing and replacing the joint.
In most cases your veterinarian will prescribe physical therapy, which will help increase the dogs range of motion. Physical therapy can consist of swimming, massage and exercise. Pain may be alleviated with cold or heat therapy as well as anti-inflammatory drugs.
Costs can vary dramatically depending on the type of treatment your dog requires. Medication costs can range from $20-$100 per month and expect to pay $50-$100 per session for physical therapy. If your dog requires surgery costs can skyrocket to $2,000 to $10,000.
In dogs (just like humans) the central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord. This disease causes the protective sheath, which covers the nerves of the central nervous system, to become inflamed. Meningomyelitis can be caused by trauma, infection or an autoimmune reaction.
Young dogs are more commonly affected. According to a study by Texas A&M University, hound and toy breed dogs less than or equal to three years of age had a 13 times higher odds of meningomyelitis compared with other breeds.
Symptoms of meningomyelitis include:
- Back or spinal pain
- Trouble walking
- Difficulty controlling defecation and urination
- Dilated pupils
- Abnormal behavior
- Difficulty swallowing
- Reflexes may be affected
Meningomyelitis can be quite serious so if you dog is displaying any symptoms of a neurological disease, they should be seen by a vet immediately. A general physical examination will include checking their reflexes, and looking for signs of slow or completely absent reflexes. They will also look for pain and swelling around the spinal cord.
In most cases, if meningomyelitis is suspected, your veterinarian will do a blood count (CBC) as well as a urinalysis. A spinal tap may also be performed which will require the dog to be sedated. It is also possible they will do an ultrasound to check the spinal cord for trauma or signs of cancer.
Treatment will vary depending on the cause of the meningomyelitis. Bacterial infections will require treatment with antibiotics, which will be given orally if possible or intravenously if the situation is more serious. If an autoimmune reaction is the cause, steroid treatments have been shown to quickly reduce symptoms. In many cases, a hospital stay will be required to ensure the dog is responding to the medication.
The cost of treating meningomyelitis can be significant. Testing and treatment can quickly go over the $3,000 mark and if hospitalization is required expect to spend up to $10,000.
A spinal fracture in a dog can be life threatening and may also involve other internal injuries. If a spinal injury is suspected, your dog should see a veterinarian immediately. A spinal fracture can occur after a fall, roadway accident, gunshot wound or even an attack from another animal.
Secondary damage to the spinal cord can occur anywhere from 24 to 48 hours after the initial trauma, making it important to get the dog to a vet and monitor for symptoms of a spinal cord injury or fracture.
Symptoms of spinal fracture include:
- Severe spinal pain
- Evidence of trauma such as bite marks
- Evidence of being hit by a car
- Inability to walk
- Decreased activity
- Decreased appetite
Because spinal fractures are often caused by severe trauma such as a collision with a vehicle or gunshot wound, your veterinarian will give your dog a very thorough examination. They will examine not only the spine but also monitor their respiratory and heart rate and check for internal bleeding or other soft tissue damage. They will also check your dog’s range of motion and assess any pain.
You will also be asked if you witnessed the trauma that caused injury as well as how your dog reacted after the incident.
Stabilizing your dog will be the veterinarian’s top priority. If they are in respiratory distress they may need oxygen, intravenous fluids as well as medication. Once the dog is stable your vet will be able to better assess how to treat the spinal injury.
Depending on the severity of the injury, your dog may be treated non-surgically or surgery may be required.
Non-surgical treatment will usually involve support bandages to help stabilize the spine. In addition your dog will require reduced exercise and crate confinement for roughly 6 to 8 weeks.
If surgery is required, the surgeon will use a combination of metal screws, pins and possibly wires to stabilize and repair the spine. As with the nonsurgical solution your dog will need to recover through crate confinement and reduced exercise.
A Spinal fracture is a very expensive injury, especially if surgery is required. The initial stabilization of the dog, as well as numerous follow-up visits makes spinal fractures very costly. Costs can range anywhere from $3,000 all the way up to $15,000.
Cervical spondylomyelopathy (CSM) is more commonly known as Wobbler Syndrome. This disease affects the spinal cord at the neck and results in compression of the spinal cord. This can lead to neck and back pain as well as neurological issues. The name comes from the wobbly gait that affected dogs have.
Commonly Affected Breeds
Cervical spondylomyelopathy is most common in large or giant breed dogs and often occurs when they are less than three years of age.
Symptoms of Cervical spondylomyelopathy include:
- Wobbly gait
- Pain or stiffness in the neck
- Short stride when walking
- Partial or complete paralysis
- Scuffed toenails
- Muscle atrophy in the shoulder area
- Difficulty getting up after lying down
Your veterinarian will give the dog a thorough examination as well as perform a variety of tests. These tests may include a blood count, urinalysis, and a blood chemical profile. Your veterinarian may also have x-rays done or possibly a CT or MRI which allows them to look closely at the spine and vertebrae. If the spine is compressed, they may also order a cerebrospinal fluid analysis.
Cervical spondylomyelopathy can be treated medically or surgically. In most cases surgery is the most effective treatment. If you decide not to go the surgical route you may have to catheterize your dog so that it does not have to go outside to urinate. The dog’s activity must be severally restricted for at least two months.
Dogs who undergo surgery will also be on an activity restricted schedule for at least 2 months, which allows the bones of the vertebrae to heal after surgery. In addition, physical therapy will be essential to help your dog fully recover. A body harness should be used when walking the dog, as neck collars can damage your dog’s spine.
Wobbler syndrome can be very expensive due to the tests, surgical costs, and physical therapy. Expect to spend between $5,000 to $7,000.
Cauda equina syndrome is the narrowing of the vertebral canal. There are multiple abnormalities that can lead to this syndrome including vertebral canal narrowing, subluxation, osteophytes (“bone spurs”), epidural fibrosis, osteochondrosis, intervertebral disc disease, and soft tissue proliferation.
This condition compresses the spinal nerve roots, which can damage them, causing pain and lameness. Cauda Equina is a common condition in dogs and can be present at birth or develop as the dog ages.
Symptoms of Cauda Equina include:
- Weakness or paralysis in the tail
- Pelvic limb muscle weakness
- Mild to severe pain in the lower back
- Reluctance to jump or climb stairs
- Difficulty sitting or rising
Your veterinarian will give the dog a thorough examination and most likely perform a number of medical tests that include a urinalysis, biochemistry profile as well as a complete blood count. A CT or MRI may also be performed to have a close look at the vertebrae and spinal cord.
The most effective treatment is surgery, which will help relieve pressure on the nerve roots. After surgery, movement will need to be restricted for roughly a month. If left untreated this disease will progress and symptoms will become more severe.
The cost to treat Cauda Equina will vary depending on the severity of symptoms and whether you elect to have surgery done. Expect costs to start around $2,000 and run up to $6,000.
Other Spine Issues in Dogs
Most spine malformations are congenital conditions, which means they are evident at birth or appear after a growth spurt. These malformations, if not causing the dogs any problems are often left untreated. Here is a list of common disc diseases in dog that you should be aware of.
- Degenerative Spinal Stenosis
- Hypoplasia of Dens
- Intervertebral Disc Disease
- Lumbosacral Syndrome
- Spondylosis Deformas