Spinal Cord Diseases and Symptoms in Dogs

dog lying

What Is Spinal Cord Disease in Dogs?

Spinal cord diseases in dogs can be quite challenging for pet parents as the symptoms are often acute and affect their movement or control of body functions.

When disease occurs in the spinal cord, dogs often present with difficulty walking, loss of coordination or balance, partial or complete paralysis, and pain.

The spinal cord cannot be regenerated when damaged, so diseases in this area are extremely serious and should be evaluated by a veterinarian immediately.

The spinal cord is located inside the spine and extends from the brain to the base of the tail. The spinal cord carries important information from the brain to the rest of the body and controls functions such as movement, sensation, urination and defecation.

Symptoms of Spinal Cord Diseases in Dogs

white and brown dog lying

Symptoms can vary depending on the diagnosis and stage of the disease. Paying close attention to the onset and progression of symptoms will provide your veterinarian with important information. Common symptoms of a disease process in the spinal cord:

  • Changes in gait
  • Pain
  • Urinary or fecal incontinence
  • Partial or complete paralysis
  • Pain
  • Lameness
  • Loss of balance or coordination
  • Most Common Spinal Cord Diseases in Dogs
  • Spinal cord and cord disorders include congenital defects, degenerative diseases, inflammatory and infectious diseases, tumors, nutritional diseases, injury and trauma, toxic disorders, and vascular diseases.

Trauma or Injury

The most common cause of spinal problems in dogs is trauma. Common causes in dogs include automobile accidents, bite wounds and gunshot wounds. Injury not only causes initial damage to the spinal cord, but also causes secondary damage from swelling, bleeding, destruction of the nerve sheath, and tissue decay.

Spinal cord injuries mainly occur as a result of a spinal dislocation or fracture. Symptoms of spinal trauma typically have a sudden and severe onset and may gradually worsen.

Severe spinal cord injury in the middle or lower back can cause a severe paralysis or a loose paralysis that spreads throughout the body for several days and leads to death from respiratory paralysis.

Broken or dislocated vertebrae can often be seen on X-rays, although some fractures may require a computed tomography (CT) scan to see. Medication can be helpful, especially if started within the first few hours of injury.

Animals with mild neurological signs from injury usually recover after 4 to 6 weeks of cage rest and pain medication. Surgery is necessary for some types of injuries that cause severe neurological symptoms.

In dogs who have lost the ability to feel pain in the places below the spinal cord injury, the outlook for recovery is poor.

Infectious Diseases

Infectious and inflammatory diseases of the spine include viral, protozoal, fungal, bacterial and parasitic infections and inflammation of unknown causes.

Bacterial Diseases

Discospondylitis is inflammation of the disc between two vertebrae (bones in the spine). The vertebrae can also become inflamed without a disc infection. Causes include a bacterial or fungal infection in the bloodstream, or a weakened immune system that allows infections to develop. Discospondylitis is more common in larger breeds. The most common symptom is spinal pain, which in some dogs also has fever, depression and weight loss. Neurological symptoms may develop due to pressure on the spinal cord or, rarely, the spread of infection to the spinal cord. X-rays are used to diagnose the condition, and blood and urine samples can identify the underlying infection. Symptoms usually disappear within 5 days of treatment with an appropriate antibiotic, but treatment should be continued for at least 8 weeks.

Rickettsial Diseases

Dogs that develop rickettsia or a related bacterial infection sometimes show signs of spinal cord dysfunction. These bacteria cause conditions such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Ehrlichiosis, which can lead to swelling of the spinal cord. Blood and cerebrospinal fluid samples can help identify the infection. Antibiotic therapy is given for 2-3 weeks. Although neurological symptoms sometimes worsen despite treatment, the outlook for complete recovery is good with early treatment.

Viral Diseases

Canine distemper, a viral infection that can cause inflammation and degeneration of cells in the brain and spinal cord, remains one of the most common central nervous system disorders in dogs worldwide. Depending on the affected area, neurological symptoms may appear suddenly or worsen slowly and gradually. Dogs may have fever, pain, discharge from their eyes and nose, skin changes, depression, diarrhea and loss of appetite. Animals with neurological signs may experience twitching, jaw chewing, and seizures, and sometimes lose motor control or develop paralysis. A definitive diagnosis is difficult without an autopsy. There is no specific treatment and the outlook for recovery is poor for dogs with severe symptoms. Vaccination is usually successful in preventing distemper.

Rabies (caused by a viral infection that spreads from peripheral nerves to the central nervous system. Initial symptoms are highly variable and the possibility of rabies should be considered in any unvaccinated animal with severe neurological dysfunction. Signs that the infection has reached the spinal cord include loss of motor control and progressive paralysis, often with loss of reflexes. Although there is no cure for the disease, you can protect your dog from this disease with regular vaccination.

Fungal Diseases

Cryptococcus neoformans is the most common fungus to cause central nervous system infection in dogs. Infections often affect other organs such as the lungs, eyes, skin or bones. Symptoms of spinal cord infection include partial or complete paralysis and spinal pain. Blood or cerebrospinal fluid tests are necessary to diagnose an infection and identify the organism.

Protozoal Diseases

Neosporosis is caused by Neospora caninum, a microorganism that can cause inflammation in the brain and spinal cord. In puppies, the infection typically causes muscle stiffness and paralysis in one or both hind legs. Other organs may also be affected, including the muscle, liver, and lungs. A blood test or tissue sample can be used to diagnose the infection. Early drug treatment can be effective, but overall the chances of recovery are poor.

Toxoplasmosis is caused by a protozoan called Toxoplasma gondii, which sometimes causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. Adult dogs typically do not show signs of illness, but puppies can have fever, diarrhea, difficulty breathing and seizures, and some may die. A blood test or tissue sample can be used to diagnose the infection. Various drugs are recommended for treatment.

Spondylosis

Spondylosis deformans, also commonly called spondylosis in dogs, is a degenerative condition that primarily affects the spine of older pets. Spondylosis deformans is characterized by the production of bone growths along the underside of the spinal vertebrae. It develops as dogs age. It is especially common in the Boxer breed. It typically does not cause symptoms, but in rare cases, dogs can have back pain. This can significantly limit a dog’s flexibility and range of motion.

While the exact causes are still unknown, it is believed that repetitive wear and stress of bones and significant injuries lead to canine spondylosis. In some cases, spondylosis is caused by a genetic predisposition.

Tumors

Spinal tumors in dogs are not common, and more than 90 percent of these occur in large breeds. Tumors affecting the spinal cord and cord in dogs include cancers of bone, connective tissue, meninges, and nerve sheath, in addition to metastatic cancers, which are cancers that have spread from other parts of the body. A particular tumor called nephroblastoma can affect young dogs (5 to 36 months old) and German Shepherds are most commonly affected. This tumor is most often in the middle or lower back and causes progressively worsening partial paralysis of the hind legs. Imaging (including x-ray, myelography, computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging) and surgical biopsy are used to establish and confirm the diagnosis of spinal cord cancer. In some cases, surgery is possible.

Nutritional Disorders

Dogs deficient in vitamin B1 (thiamine) may experience anorexia, depression, hind leg weakness, seizures, coma, and death. Causes include improperly formulated dog food, vegetarian diets, foods preserved with sulfur dioxide, and raw fish diets. The condition is diagnosed based on symptoms, diet, and response to vitamin B.

Poisoning and Toxic Disorders

Organophosphate poisoning can occur if a dog eats or comes in contact with the skin of insecticides or pesticides containing organophosphate. In addition to severe exposure symptoms, paralysis may develop 1 to 4 weeks after exposure. Partial paralysis of the hind legs gradually worsens and sometimes all 4 legs are paralyzed. Your veterinarian will need a history of the dog’s possible chemical exposure to make the correct diagnosis. The recovery outlook is poor for animals with severe symptoms.

Tetanus is caused by toxins produced by the bacteria Clostridium tetani, which enter the body usually from the wound site. Dogs are highly resistant to tetanus, but cases do occur occasionally. Symptoms usually develop within 5 to 10 days of infection and include muscle stiffness and rigid leg elongation, inability to swallow, protruding eyelids, and locking of the jaw and facial muscles. In severe cases, the animal may not be able to stand as a result of muscle spasms. Treatment consists of wound care, antibiotics to kill any remaining organisms, and tetanus antitoxin. In mild cases, a dog can fully recover with early treatment. In severe cases, death may occur from respiratory paralysis.

Diagnosing Spinal Cord Disease in Dogs

Your veterinarian will first rule out any trauma or an injury. Traumatic injuries of the spinal cord are very serious and will be treated differently from spinal cord disease in terms of diagnosis. He or she will then distinguish between a spinal cord disease and a disease process of the spinal column or discs surrounding the spinal cord that may affect the spinal cord at a secondary level. Once the traumatic injury has been ruled out, there are several diagnostic procedures that can be used to find a diagnosis.

Physical Exam: Your veterinarian will typically perform a physical exam to check for any neurological or physical abnormalities. A thorough examination will help the veterinarian decide which diagnostic tests or imaging are necessary.

Blood Work and Urine Analysis: Preliminary blood work will provide an overview of the dog’s overall health and can provide clues as to whether there is an infectious process and if there is incontinence a urinalysis will be done.

Imaging: An X-ray will likely be taken to rule out obvious tumors or structural abnormalities. An MRI is usually recommended, but other imaging tools such as CT or myelography may be recommended to take a close look at the spinal cord. MRI and CT scan provide your veterinarian with a detailed view of the spinal cord and are a critical diagnostic tool.

Spinal Cord Disease Treatment in Dogs

Serious spinal cord diseases are difficult to treat. The sensitive spinal cord provides the rest of the body with crucial information from the brain and cannot heal itself.

Surgery is often the only available treatment for tumors or diseases such as Syringomyelia/Hydromyelia. Surgery is considered when the benefits outweigh the risks of further damage to the spinal cord. In the case of a tumor, the location and size of the tumor will be evaluated when considering surgical removal. In the case of Syringomyelia/Hydromyelia, a controversial surgical treatment is to release some of the fluid from the spinal cord to reduce the pressure inside in severe cases. Apart from this, surgery can be a solution for disc herniation or trauma-related spinal fractures. If it is due to an infectious or nutritional condition, your dog may recover with medical treatment. In the case of Degenerative Myelopathy and other progressive diseases, the management of symptoms and the dog’s quality of life may be the only treatment options.

Recovery of Spinal Cord Disease in Dogs

It is important to continue to monitor symptoms. If symptoms worsen, a follow-up appointment should be made. Because treatment options for spinal cord diseases are often limited, it is important to manage the disease to provide the dog with the best quality of life. Dogs should be constantly monitored for worsening symptoms from progressive diseases such as Degenerative Myelopathy or a growing tumor. There are numerous tools available to help manage spine disease.

Pain Management: Pain medications or anti-inflammatory medications may be prescribed to manage pain if indicated. Watching symptoms carefully will help determine the best dose over time.

Exercise: Weight must be managed to avoid any additional stress on the spine. Maintaining muscle tone through light exercise and physical therapy may be beneficial in some cases.

Habitat Changes: If stairs become difficult or dangerous, it may be necessary to keep the dog on one floor of the house. Small steps can be helpful for dogs that are resting on sofas or beds or have easier access to the car. Making these small changes can help the dog lead a more independent life and help an owner who is physically unable to lift the dog.

You should also have your veterinarian check if your dog’s head is bent inwards and if his back is arched. Any awkward position can be one of the clinical signs of spinal problems.

If you suspect that your dog has any problems with the spinal canal or his spine in general, take him to your veterinarian as soon as possible.

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