Spinal problems in dogs | The Kennel Club (2024)

Spinal problems in dogs | The Kennel Club (1)

How do dogs develop spinal problems? What are the symptoms? What are the treatment options? Dogs can suffer from a variety of spinal problems. Understanding the differences between these problems, including their risk factors and symptoms, can help you to identify and manage them effectively, ultimately enhancing your dog’s quality of life.

Common spinal problems

There are several possible spinal problems in dogs, ranging from mild to life-threatening. Here are some of the most common:

Degenerative myelopathy (DM)

DM is a slowly progressive disease that causes nerve damage in the spine. It typically affects dogs aged 8 years or older, with initial signs of imbalance and weakness in the back legs, which can potentially lead to paralysis, difficulty eating or toileting, and in severe cases, breathing problems. While it most commonly affects German Shepherd Dogs, other breeds can also be affected. A definitive diagnosis in most breeds can only be made post-mortem (examination of the body after death).

Hemivertebrae (HV)

HV is a congenital (present at birth) condition where one or more vertebrae (bones in the spine) are abnormally shaped, which can cause spinal abnormalities. Affected dogs may show no symptoms, but depending on the location and severity, it can cause pain, weakness, and issues with movement. It is more common in screw-tailed breeds such as the Pug.

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)

IVDD is caused by the gradual wear of the intervertebral discs, which are fluid-filled discs that cushion between the bones of the spine. As these discs harden, their shock-absorbing ability decreases, which can result in a slipped disc and spinal cord compression. Symptoms include pain, unusual posture, incontinence, unwillingness to move, wobbliness, and paralysis. IVDD is a complex condition caused by several different genes and environmental factors. It commonly affects breeds with shorter leg conformation, such as the Dachshund.

Lumbosacral stenosis

This multifactorial degenerative disease affects the nerves and bones in the lower back, mainly in larger breeds. It causes pain, incontinence, paralysis of the back legs, and difficulty walking.

Osteoarthritis (OA)

OA is a progressive joint disease, which causes the cartilage to breakdown, resulting in chronic pain and inflammation. It can affect any breed, but is more commonly seen in larger, older dogs.

Spondylosis deformans

This condition causes bony growths to form along the spine. While symptoms may be insignificant, severe forms can cause pain, stiffness, and difficulty walking. It is more common in older, medium to large breed dogs.

A dog's conformation, genetics, and lifestyle can all influence their risk of developing spinal problems. Therefore, certain breeds are more prone to spinal problems than others. While the following list provides a general overview, it is important to note that spinal problems are not limited to purebred dogs and can affect crossbreeds too.

Breeds known to be affected by:

  • DMinclude the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, German Shepherd Dog, and Rough Collie.
  • HVinclude the Pug.
  • IVDDinclude the Basset Hound, Dachshund, and French Bulldog.
  • Lumbosacral stenosisinclude the German Shepherd Dog.
  • Osteoarthritisinclude any breed but is more common in larger dogs.
  • Spondylosisinclude the Boxer.

Spinal problems in brachycephalic dogs

Some brachycephalic dogs, specifically those with coiled, very short or absent tails, are at an increased risk of abnormally shaped vertebrae that do not align correctly, which may lead to deformity of the spine, including curvature and twisting (kyphosis and/or scoliosis). This can lead to instability of the spinal column, which in some dogs leads to the spinal cord or the nerves arising from it becoming squashed and damaged.

Abnormally shaped vertebrae may be due to selection for screw-tails in some brachycephalic breeds. Curved or screw tails in these breeds result from abnormally shaped vertebrae in the tail region of the spine, and these breeds have genes that tend to cause the formation of abnormally shaped vertebrae elsewhere in the spinal column as well as in the tail.

Find out more about other issues that may affect flat-faced dogs in ourbrachycephalic hub.

Causes of spinal problems

The development of spinal problems is influenced by a range of factors including age, genetics, lifestyle, and other health conditions.

Symptoms of spinal problems

Symptoms vary depending on the type and severity of the condition, and may include:

  • Unusual posture (e.g. hunched back)
  • Issues with movement
  • Difficulty or unwillingness to walk, run, get up, jump or climb stairs
  • Fainting or collapse
  • Fever
  • Incontinence (loss of bowel or bladder control)
  • Lethargy (low energy)
  • Limping
  • Loss of coordination and balance
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Pain, discomfort, or stiffness
  • Paralysis
  • Sudden weight changes

In some dogs these symptoms may have a rapid onset, whilst in others they may develop gradually.

Could these symptoms change over time?

In some dogs, symptoms may progress over time and may lead to paralysis of the back legs and incontinence (inability to control passing urine or faeces). Other dogs may show no progression and may live with relatively stable signs once they have stopped growing.

What should I do if my dog shows symptoms of a spinal problem?

If your dog shows any symptoms of a spinal problem, you should seek advice from your vet to diagnose any spinal abnormalities.

How are spinal problems diagnosed?

Veterinary diagnosis typically starts with a thorough medical and physical examination to evaluate their general condition and pinpoint the location and severity of the pain or paralysis. Blood tests may be used to check for any infections or imbalances. Advanced imaging techniques such as computer tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and myelograms (x-rays with a special dye injected around the spinal cord) may also be used.

How do I test for spinal problems?

If you’re concerned about your dog’s spine, consult your vet. If necessary, they may refer you to a veterinary neurologist for advanced diagnosis and treatment.

For those considering breeding a Dachshund, an official screening scheme for detecting IVDD is available. More information can be found onIVDD Scheme for Dachshunds | The Kennel Club.

What treatments options are available for spinal problems?

Treatments are tailored to the specific condition and its severity. In mild cases, no treatment may be needed other than monitoring dogs for signs of progression and making allowances for their gait abnormalities to avoid injury. Some dogs may be treated conservatively with lifestyle changes, rest, and pain management medication. But for more severe cases, surgery may be required. It’s important to promptly seek veterinary attention if you observe any signs associated with a spinal problem in your dog.

Spinal surgery is complicated, requiring specialist treatment and may not always be successful. Some dogs which are completely paralysed in their hind legs may not recover use of them after surgery, and long-term care of paralysed dogs may be considered by owners, including the use of mobility aids (e.g. carts) and incontinence management (e.g. bladder expression). Some owners may opt for euthanasiaof severe cases where mobility and feeling in the back legs cannot be restored.

Can I breed from my dog if they have spinal problems?

It is not recommended to breed dogs with spinal problems, as they may pass on the condition to their puppies and contribute to the “risky” genes within the breed. For more information about inherited conditions where no test is yet available, please visitInherited conditions with no tests | The Kennel Club.

While there is no guarantee against producing affected puppies, available screening schemes and responsible breeding practices can reduce the risks and improve awareness of a breeding dogs’ health status before breeding.

What can I do to prevent spinal problems?

Both early detection and intervention play crucial roles in managing or overcoming spinal problems. Therefore, ensuring regular veterinary check-ups and promoting a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of spinal problems and improve your dog’s overall well-being.

Where can I find further support and resources?

For additional support, reach out to your vet. You may also find it helpful to contact yourbreed health co-ordinator, or members of your localBreed Club, for any breed-specific guidance and advice.

Can I contribute to any research?

Owners can contribute to ongoing research efforts by staying informed about current projects. Please visit our research pagehereto see current projects that apply to your breed.


Parts of this article were written by Dr Rowena Packer from the Royal Veterinary College who has given The Kennel Club kind permission to replicate it. Dr Rowena Packeris a Research Fellow at the Royal Veterinary College. Her research interests include many areas of canine inherited disease including brachycephalic health and canine epilepsy.

Think your dog may be affected?

If you're worried about your dog's health, always contact your vetimmediately!

We're not a veterinary organisation and so we can't give veterinary advice, but if you're worried about any of the issues raised in this article, please contact your local vet practice for further information.

Find a vet near you

If you're looking for a vet practice near you, why not visit the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons'Find a vetpage.

Related Topics

Brachycephalic dog health issues
Brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome
Eye problems in brachycephalic dogs
Skin problems in brachycephalic dogs
Birthing difficulties in brachycephalic dogs
Spinal problems in dogs | The Kennel Club (2024)


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