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What is Progressive Diseases of the Spine?

Most progressive diseases of the spine affect older dogs, but a few affect younger dogs due to genetics or other illnesses such as cancer. Though not all of these diseases are painful, owners may need to dedicate considerable amounts of time and resources to minimize their pet’s progressive symptoms. Owners who consult the veterinarian to diagnose and treat their pet early and quickly can significantly extend the length and quality of their pet’s life. 

Progressive diseases of the spine impact part or all of the vertebral column and its associated nerves. These diseases worsen over time, especially if they go untreated or mismanaged.

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Symptoms of Progressive Diseases of the Spine in Dogs

Early symptoms generally affect dogs’ lower back and hind legs. Owners may notice: 

  • Shaky, shuffling, or uncoordinated gait
  • Dragging of rear paws and toenail wear 
  • Body and neck stiffness
  • Muscle loss
  • Difficulty rising from a resting position
  • Emotional distress, such as whining 

In more advanced stages, pets may have:

  • Difficulty standing 
  • Incontinence 
  • Loss of mobility or paralysis in all some or all legs

Types

Common types of spine diseases include, but are not limited to: 

  • Lumbosacral Stenosis (Cauda Equina) - A compression of lower back nerves as they leave the spinal canal causing nerve injury; this occurs most commonly in large breeds between 3 and 7 years 
  • Degenerative Myelopathy (DM - This is a degeneration of the spinal cord and nerves resulting in paralysis; though painless, DM occurs most commonly in German Shepherds, Corgis, Boxers, Retrievers, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and Poodles between 8 and 14 years 
  • Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) - A herniation of intervertebral discs in the spine, causing inflammation, IVDD is most common in older dogs and breeds with short legs and long backs such as Dachshunds, Basset Hounds, and Corgis
  • Cervical Spondylomyelopathy (“Wobbler Syndrome”) - A neurological disorder with two types, both of which cause a “wobbly” gait. Type I afflicts young dogs (a few months  to years old) and is caused by narrowing of the spinal canal and  is most common in large breeds such as Mastiffs and Great Danes. Type II afflicts middle to old age dogs and is caused by spinal cord compression due to herniated discs, similar to IVDD; it is most common in large breeds, particularly Dobermans.

Causes of Progressive Diseases of the Spine in Dogs

Causes of these diseases vary, but are generally a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Some diseases that affect large breeds are thought to occur in part to rapid growth at a young age. 

Other factors may include: 

  • Congenital and hereditary makeup 
  • Wear and tear from aging 
  • Effects of arthritis
  • Herniated or inflamed intervertebral disks 
  • Misaligned or dislocated intervertebral disks 
  • Swelling inside the spinal canal 
  • Growths (such as tumors) or infections around the spinal cord

Diagnosis of Progressive Diseases of the Spine in Dogs

The veterinarian will go over your dog’s medical history and perform a physical and neurological assessment. He may examine the limbs to pinpoint the source of pain and test the dog’s reflexes to determine if nerves are injured. A standard x-ray may be taken to further evaluate the spine and rule out other illnesses. If additional testing is needed, your pet may be subject to non-invasive internal imaging procedures in a clinic or hospital such as a: 

  • Myelogram - An x-ray with dye injected around the spinal cord to see the affected area more clearly
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) - An imaging technique that takes a three dimensional detailed anatomical picture without radiation 
  • CAT (computer tomography) Scan -  A series of x-ray images that create a three dimensional detailed anatomical picture 

The number and types of tests are done at the discretion of pet owners and their veterinarians. Afterwards, veterinarians should provide treatment and management options based on the specifics of the diagnosis.

Treatment of Progressive Diseases of the Spine in Dogs

Treatment of progressive spine diseases varies based on the type, stage, and cause of disease. 

Non-Surgical Treatments

Some diseases, such as degenerative myelopathy, have no cure. Owners of pets with degenerative myelopathy can manage their pet’s symptoms with a combination of exercise therapy and pain management techniques such as massage and acupuncture, but dogs will ultimately succumb to this illness. For mild cases of other diseases such as lumbosacral stenosis (cauda equina), “wobbler syndrome”, and IVDD, owners can adhere to a regimen of restricted movement, physical therapy, anti-inflammatory and pain medications with great success. 

Surgical Treatments

For more severe cases, surgeries aimed at decompressing the spine or replacing a disc may be necessary. Success depends heavily on the age of the dog and severity of the disease, as well as how quickly surgery can be conducted. That said, a dog in otherwise good health can expect to see improvements in their mobility if they recover appropriately. Dogs whose spine is affected by illnesses, such tumors, should be referred to a specialist to remove the growth and receive additional recommendations for treatment.

Recovery of Progressive Diseases of the Spine in Dogs

Owners whose pets are prescribed a non-surgical approach are encouraged to come up with a comprehensive and consistent treatment plan with their veterinarian. With all spine conditions, veterinarians emphasize the importance of eliminating jumping up and down from furniture and maintaining a healthy weight to reduce symptom aggravation and reduce the risk of relapse. 

With surgery, owners can expect their pet to be in the hospital for a few days to a week depending on the type of surgery and the severity of the disease. After surgery, dogs are generally free to go home once the majority of the pain has subsided and they are able to use the bathroom on their own. At home, activity is typically limited for a few weeks before embarking on a personalized recovery plan that, like the non-surgical approach, typically combines physical exercises and pain management techniques. 

Overall, it is extremely important to fully understand your pet’s diagnosis before developing a treatment and recovery that may include regular visits to the veterinarian plan based on the specifics of the disease and your pet’s condition.