Two of the most common spinal cord diseases in dogs are Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) and Degenerative Myelopathy (DM). Each is discussed in great length in our Featured Posts. There are also many less-known spine conditions dogs frequently develop. Those are the diseases explained in this story.
My goal is to share the basics about each disorder so you’ll have solid information about their symptoms, causes and treatments. You’ll be prepared to recognize the warning signs and have the right information to talk with your veterinarian about them.
7 of the most common spinal cord diseases in dogs you probably don’t know.
Fibrocartilaginous Embolism (FCE stroke)
FCE is a type of stroke that happens more often than you think to healthy dogs. It begins when a small piece of disc material in the spine suddenly breaks off. This fragment of jelly-like matter travels through the bloodstream until it causes a blockage (embolism) in your dog’s spinal cord. The lack of blood flow causes sudden paralysis to the limbs and can damage other parts of the body, like the lungs.
FCE strokes happen fast. One minute your dog is playing normally and the next minute they’re on the ground fighting for their life.
FCE can strike any dog, although the typical victim is a large breed pup between 3-6 years-old. Some researchers suspect that miniature Schnauzers are predisposed as well.
I was introduced to Mia who had a FCE stroke just after her first birthday. It happened when her pet mom Risa walked in the door after work. She let Mia out in the backyard. A minute later Mia yelped in pain. Risa found the dog lying on her side, unable to move and struggling to breathe.
Mia’s story has a happy ending. After months of rehab and hyperbaric oxygen treatments, spearheaded by Risa, little Mia is walking again. You can read her complete story on Facebook – Mia’s Journey to Walk Again.
- Sudden onset
- Struggles to stand
- One side of the back tilts more than the other
- There might be loss of bladder and bowel control
- Weakness in the affected limbs
Here’s a missing symptom to keep in mind: FCE victims Do Not have tenderness in their spine like you would see with an IVDD injury or a ruptured disc.
- Extensive physical therapy
- Underwater treadmill
- Hyperbaric oxygen therapy
Nutmeg is another FCE survivor I had the chance to get to know. Her stroke developed in the middle of the spine when she was 3 1/2 years-old. It left her rear legs paralyzed. Nutmeg’s pet mom Marie took the dog for intensive physical therapy and acupuncture for 5 months. Today the little Dachshund can wag her tail and scoot around the house. Marie also relies on a dog wheelchair to help Nutmeg get around. You can learn more about their experience at I Believe in Nutmeg on Facebook.
The recovery rate for FCE survivors is good: One study showed that more than 70 percent of dogs had improvement in their symptoms after 3 weeks.
You don’t hear about this problem often, but spinal cord tumors in dogs are relatively common. The typical victim is a middle-age dog around 6-years-old. Tumors come in two forms and unfortunately, both have a high mortality rate.
The average life expectancy for a dog with a spinal tumor is 6 months.
Spinal cord tumors are classified as Primary and Secondary. A primary tumor begins in the spine. Secondary tumors spread to the spine from another part of the body. This is usually due to a cancer that’s metastasized.
Here’s a description of the two common types of tumors:
Extradural – The tumor grows outside the spine.
Intradural-extramedullary – The tumor occurs inside the spinal cord.
Spinal tumor symptoms: (Symptoms depend on the location of the tumor)
- Pain in the bladder
- Neck or back pain
- Has difficulty lifting their head
- Loss of coordination and balance
Dogs with spinal tumors have the best outcome when the tumor can be surgically removed. But not every dog is a candidate. The deciding factors are the number of tumors in the spine and their location. Some spinal tumors are too difficult to reach.
Corticosteroids are routinely prescribed to reduce inflammation and your dog might also receive radiation treatments. Dogs who receive these two therapies along with the surgical removal of a tumor have the best outcome. Their life expectancy can be between 11-23 months.
This condition, which is also known as Cervical Spondylomyelopathy (CSM), is a disease of the cervical spine (neck). It occurs in large and giant breed dogs like Doberman Pinchers, Rottweilers, Bernese Mountain dogs and Great Danes. Basset hounds are also prone.
Large breed dogs generally show the first signs of the disease at around 6-years-old. The onset for giant breeds is about 3-years-old.
Wobbler Syndrome happens when the vertebrae in the neck slips or develops a bony growth. The already narrow portion of the spinal column at the neck becomes compressed. Dogs suffer from pain and other neurological symptoms.
Dogs develop weakness that starts in their front limbs and can work its way to the rear legs as well.
One theory about the cause of Wobbler Syndrome has to do with the fast rate large and giant breed dogs grow. Another theory suspects it’s a problem with their nutrition. Large breeds can get too much protein and calcium in their diet.
Wobbler Syndrome gets its name from the number one symptom that’s seen during the early stages of the disease. Dogs walk with a strange, wobbly gait.
Early signs of Wobbler Syndrome:
- Wobbly gait with short clumsy steps
- Weakness in the front legs
- Pain and stiffness in the neck
- Has trouble getting up from the floor
- Worn down nails and paws from taking uneven steps
- Muscle weakness in the shoulders
Surgical candidates – Spine surgery is usually recommended for healthy dogs. It’s followed up with 2-3 months of rest and then physical therapy.
Medically maintained – This treatment is prescribed for dogs with underlying health problems. It consists of a minimum of 2 months of limited activity. Dogs are prevented from jumping or running and are given anti-inflammatory medications.
It’s also recommended that both surgical and medical patients should us a harness for walks rather than a typical dog collar. In addition, pet owners are asked to cut back on the daily amount of protein and calcium their dog eats.
Hemivertebrae is a spine deformity rather than a disease and many dogs are bred to have it. The name means “half a vertebrae” and it’s what creates that cute corkscrew tail you see in English bulldogs, French bulldogs, Pugs, Boston terriers and others. It happens when the left and right halves of the vertebrae grow unequally, causing the spine to twist and fuse together in a butterfly or wedge-shape.
Hemivertebrae in the tail of brachycephalic breeds (dogs with flat-faces and short-noses) doesn’t typically create health problems. But occasionally the deformity continues to develop higher in the spine in places like the base of the neck, the shoulders or the upper spine.
When this happens, Hemivertebrae can lead to serious spinal cord compression and paralysis.
- Hind end weakness
- Urinary and fecal incontinence
- Paralysis in the hind limbs
Puppies with this condition can show signs of pain and spinal cord compression, but they generally subside when the dog is 9 months-old and the spine is fully grown.
Dogs who show the neurological symptoms listed above are usually treated with corticosteroid injections and rest.
The dogs who have severe compression to their spine are treated with surgery. This is done to relieve excess pressure and stop the development of permanent damage to the nerves.
Spina bifida (SB) is an inherited condition that happens in the womb when one or more vertebrae don’t fully fuse together. It prevents the spinal column from closing. Researchers believe SB is linked to malnutrition in the mother dog during pregnancy or if she’s exposed to environmental toxins or stress while her puppies are in the womb.
The birth defect is commonly seen in English bulldogs. On occasion it’s also detected in Boxers. Typically, the lower half of the spine is affected. There are different degrees of SB that leave victims with mild to debilitating symptoms.
Melody (Mellie) was born with Spina bifida. Her breeder contacted a rescue group in Washington state to see if they would take her into their care. Mellie was only 8-weeks-old when Debbie Thompson took over as her foster mom. Today Debbie is Mellie’s adopted mom and together they’re teaching the world that dogs with disabilities can lead happy lives. You can find them at Boxers on Wheels.
Spina Bifida symptoms:
- Many times the condition is first suspected when a puppy tries to walk.
- Hind end weakness
- Lack of control over their muscles
- Urinary and fecal incontinence
- Drainage from the spine
- The good news is symptoms do not get worse with age.
Many puppies with severe symptoms of Spina bifida are euthanized by breeders.
Mild cases are best treated with surgery to close the deformity in the spine. And even with surgery, some dogs are left incontinent or need to use a mobility device like a dog wheelchair. Severe cases of SB leave dogs paralyzed in their hind limbs. On occasion the rear legs are amputated to prevent a dog from suffering from injuries, open wounds and infections.
Vestibular Disease – The head tilting disorder
This condition isn’t actually a spine disease, but it’s included in this list because it dramatically affects a dog’s mobility. Vestibular Disease is an acute disorder that comes on quickly with severe symptoms. It can be a scary experience for you and your dog.
The condition begins in the vestibular nerve which is located in the inner ear and connects to the brain. It controls eye movement and communicates with the brain for standing, sitting and turning around. It what keeps your dog from falling over.
When the nerve gets injured or diseased it wreaks havoc. It makes dogs feel dizzy, nauseous and very anxious.
Vestibular disease can develop due to an inner ear infection, head trauma, a tumor, hypothyroidism, meningoencephalitis and more. Many times, the cause is never determined.
The good part of the disorder is that dogs usually feel better after 72 hours.
Vestibular Disease symptoms:
- Head tilt
- Falling down
- Nausea and vomiting
- Walking in circles
- Symptoms come on fast
Due to the extreme symptoms, dogs should be seen immediately by their veterinarian. This is to rule out more dangerous illnesses. The symptoms can mimic disorders like a stroke, brain tumor or a seizure.
For instance, the erratic eye rolling movement in a patient with Vestibular disease can also be seen in a dog having a life-threatening stroke.
Dogs with Vestibular disease are not typically hospitalized, but are instead released so you take care of them at home. Pet owners are instructed to keep your dog well hydrated, due to their nausea, and to use a support harness or a large towel as a sling. This will prevent your dog from falling down when they need to move or relieve themselves outside.
Occasionally dogs suffer from complications or have long-term health problems. Some need IV fluids if they become dehydrated. Other dogs retain their head tilt even when their symptoms are gone.
Pug Myelopathy (PM)
This is a newly recognized spinal cord disease that’s uniquely linked to Pugs. Dogs develop a complex series of lesions on their spine. Researchers are working on the cause of this genetic disorder.
Pug Myelopathy was originally confused with Degenerative Myelopathy until slight differences in the symptoms were identified.
Like DM, Pug Myelopathy affects the mobility of older dogs aged 9-12. It’s a painless disease that causes hind end paralysis and incontinence. But unlike DM, which advances to organ failure and death, PM moves slowly and may even stall.
It can take dogs 1-4 years to become paralyzed and even longer to advance to the final stages, if they happen at all. With good nursing care from an owner, Pugs with the disease can manage well.
Pug Myelopathy symptoms:
- Reluctant to climb stairs or walk on slick surfaces
- Changes in bladder and bowel control
- Lack of coordination in the rear legs
- Loss of muscle strength in the hind limbs
- Wearing down of the nails on the rear legs from dragging paws
- Eventual rear limb paralysis
Several studies are currently being conducted about Pug Myelopathy, it’s genetic component and rehabilitation protocols.
In the meantime, it’s recommended that owners get under the care of a veterinarian and a canine rehab specialist. Dogs who start physical therapy early in the disease and continue with ongoing exercise appear to do better than dogs without this treatment.
Pugs are also advised to use a dog wheelchair soon after their diagnosis for the same reason. The exercise it provides adds to their strength and mobility. Additional information about the condition can be found on the Pug Myelopathy website which is run by veterinary researcher, Kathleen Smiler, DVM. It has the most up-to-date information for you and your veterinarian.