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What are Spinal and Vertebral Birth Defects?

There are a number of spinal and vertebral defects that can cause problems in dogs. The spine is made up of vertebrae separated by intervertebral disks that act as shock absorbers. This structure provides both support and flexibility, so your dog can move easily without injury. The spinal or vertebral canal running through the center of each vertebra contains and protects the spinal cord. The spinal cord passes messages to and from the brain, and helps to regulate many involuntary muscle processes, so it is a very important part of your dog’s nervous system. Spinal vertebrae are divided into three sections: the cervical or neck area, the upper thoracic spine, and the lower lumbar region. Each vertebra is numbered according to its placement in the section. Some abnormalities will affect the shape of vertebrae. Hemivertebra are shortened and misshapen with a wedge or triangular shape on one side, while butterfly vertebrae have a cleft on one side so their shape resembles a butterfly. Other abnormalities affect the way vertebrae are joined together. Several vertebrae may be fused or the vertebrae transitioning between different parts of the spine may be improperly differentiated. Many of these conditions may have no symptoms, or only mild gait or posture abnormality. Any problem that puts pressure on the spinal cord is more serious. Some types of vertebral malformations can cause neurological symptoms, paralysis, or even death. 

Birth defects that affect the spine are a fairly common problem in some breeds of dogs. Veterinarians call this congenital vertebral malformations. Symptoms can vary depending on the type and location of the abnormality. Problems that cause compression or injury to the spinal cord are much more serious.

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Symptoms of Spinal and Vertebral Birth Defects in Dogs

These are the symptoms you might notice in a dog with spinal and vertebral malformations. Some dogs may have symptoms from birth while others may develop them after a growth spurt causes weakness in the spine.

  • Sway back (lordosis) – curvature of the spine downward
  • Arching spine (kyphosis) – curvature of the spine upward
  • Awkward or wobbly gate
  • Uncoordinated movements
  • Paresis – musculature weakness or partial paralysis
  • Paralysis
  • Incontinence of urine or bowel movements

Types

These are some of the different types of spinal and vertebral defects in dogs, as well as the breeds they frequently affect.

Atlantoaxial luxation

  • Malformation of the occipital bone – instability that may cause the spinal cord to become pinched between the first and second vertebrae
  • Small and toy breeds (Yorkshire Terrier, Chihuahua, Poodle, Pomeranian, and Pekinese)

Hemivertebra

 

  • Vertebrae that are underdeveloped and wedged shaped on one side
  • Screw-tailed breeds (Pugs, Bulldogs, and Boston Terriers), German Shorthaired Pointers, German Shepherds

Butterfly vertebra

 

  • Underdeveloped vertebrae with a cleft shape that resembles a butterfly
  • Brachycephalic and screw-tailed breeds

Transitional Vertebra

  • Abnormally differentiated vertebrae between the different parts of the spine
  • Screw-tailed breeds

Block vertebra

 

  • Several vertebrae fused together
  • Screw-tailed breeds

Meninges or spina bifida

 

  • Malformation or the spine that leads to exposure of the spinal cord
  • Screw-tailed breeds especially bulldogs

Myelodysplasia (spinal dysraphism

  • Lesions on the lower spinal cord that are present from birth
  • Weimaraners

Spinal Stenosis

  • A congenital narrowing of the spinal canal. In the cervical spine this is also called caudal cervical spondylomyelopathy or wobbler syndrome
  • Doberman pinschers, Great Danes, Borzois, Old English Sheep Dogs, St. Bernard’s, Pointers and Basset Hounds
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Causes of Spinal and Vertebral Birth Defects in Dogs

Spinal and vertebral malformations are usually inherited. The mode of inheritance is only understood in a few cases. German shepherds inherit hemivertebra as an autosomal recessive trait. In Weimaraners, myelodysplasia appears to be co-dominant; dogs with the gene from only one parent have mild symptoms, while puppies with two defective genes usually don’t survive. In many cases, several genes may be involved, as well as other factors like nutritional deficiency in the womb. Breeding dogs with any form of spinal birth defect is not recommended, even if your dog isn’t showing symptoms. This can help to reduce incidence in a breed.

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Diagnosis of Spinal and Vertebral Birth Defects in Dogs

An X-ray is needed to diagnose any vertebral malformation. If your dog is not showing symptoms, the veterinarian may notice the abnormality on an X-ray for another purpose. Dogs with an unusually swayed or arched back should be evaluated by a veterinarian, especially if the problem causes weakness or difficulty controlling movements. Other symptoms, such as paralysis or pain can help the veterinarian locate the abnormality.

Your dog’s age and breed will be relevant, as well as any recent injuries that could suggest a different diagnosis. Several X-rays may be needed to find the angle that shows the malformation. Your dog may need anesthetic, especially if moving the spine is painful. A CT scan or an MRI could also be ordered to show the spine in more detail.

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Treatment of Spinal and Vertebral Birth Defects in Dogs

Treatment will depend on the severity of the problem. Dogs that are not symptomatic don’t need to be treated. If your dog has only a mild gait or posture abnormality, the veterinarian may also not recommend treatment, unless the symptoms seem to be getting progressively worse.

Problems that affect the spinal cord are usually treated with surgery. Veterinarians will recommend a specialist for this type of surgery. The affected vertebrae will need to be decompressed and often pins or bone plates may be inserted to stabilize the area and prevent the spinal cord from becoming pinched. Dogs will usually need 6-8 weeks of rest or reduced activity after surgery to recover. A brace may be necessary to stabilize the area during healing.

Some conditions like myelodysplasia and spina bifida are not treatable. These conditions don’t get progressively worse, and dogs with only mild symptoms will live still fulfilling lives, but dogs with very severe symptoms may need to be euthanized. Some other malformations may not be untreatable, if your dog is not healthy enough for surgery, or if there is no way to correct the abnormality surgically. Steroids or painkillers may be prescribed to manage the symptoms. Depending on the severity of the problem, the veterinarian may recommend euthanasia also.

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Recovery of Spinal and Vertebral Birth Defects in Dogs

Your dog’s chance of recovery will vary greatly depending on the specific type of defect and where it is located. Some dogs will make a full recovery after surgical treatment. Others may still have neurological disabilities.  Some mobility problems can be managed with adaptive equipment, such as rear wheel carts or dog wheelchairs. You may need to rearrange the house so your dog doesn’t need to climb stairs. If your dog has continued incontinence after surgery this may need to be managed with a catheter and/or assistance emptying the bladder.

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Spinal and Vertebral Birth Defects Average Cost

From 21 quotes ranging from $1,500 - $8,500

Average Cost

$4,500

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Spinal and Vertebral Birth Defects Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

Need pet health advice? Ask a vet

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Ask a Vet

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Poochie

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French Bulldog

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6 Months

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Moderate severity

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1 found helpful

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Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Paralysis

I got 2 french bulldogs from the same litter. One of them started walking like a drunk a week after her vaccines. After examining her my vet recommended X-rays and a neurologist- the X-rays came back and show thoracic congenital malformation of the spine. She is showing paresis of the hind legs still. I am taking her to a near surgeon in a week but am clueless as to what to expect. She is eating drinking playing etc. Is there a treatment for this even??? Any help appreciated she is my baby.

July 26, 2017

Poochie's Owner


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1 Recommendations

Since I haven’t seen an x-ray or examined Poochie I am assuming the cause is Hemivertebra(e). French Bulldogs are predisposed to a congenital malformation called Hemivertebra(e) where one or more vertebrae are deformed leading to spinal cord compression in severe cases; mild cases may be treated with anti inflammatories but more severe cases would need a surgery called hemilaminectomy, I’ve added a link to our page on this condition as well as other resources. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVMwww.vetary.com/dog/condition/hemivertebra-www.ufaw.org.uk/dogs/french-bulldog-hemivertebraewww.petinsurancequotes.com/dog-health/hemivertebrae.html

July 26, 2017

The radiology reports show "kyphosis" of the thoracic region... is that the same thing?

July 26, 2017

Poochie's Owner


Hi. My dog Talia has a curvage in her spine and is paralyzed in her back legs+ incontent. Her back only bends one way. does this sound like scoliosis? I have some old x-rays if you would like to look at them.

Oct. 24, 2017

Mariah C.

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beau

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Maltese

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6 Months

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Moderate severity

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1 found helpful

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Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Sickness
Sickness , Dizzyness , Falls On Back Legs,
Sickness, Dizzyness, Head Tilts Asa

my little 6 month old maltese puppy has started to feel dizzy and fall on her back legs , she was sick for three days , but now not sick anymore, she gets so dizzy and her head tilts , vets have checked her ears and no ear infections we are waiting on her blood test reults to come back for seizures, would this have anything to do with her spine and she is so cheeky and jumps of the sofa quite a bit ... very worried

July 26, 2017

beau 's Owner

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1 Recommendations

There are various different causes of dizziness and head tilt in dogs including trauma, poisoning, birth defects (x-ray may be helpful), liver conditions, kidney disorders or hormonal conditions. Try to restrict her movement in case there is an injury, like I mentioned an x-ray would be useful to rule out some conditions. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM  

July 26, 2017

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Leeloo

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Bernese Mountain Dog

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1 Year

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Moderate severity

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1 found helpful

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Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

My 1 year old bernese mountain has 5 blocked vertebrae in her thoracic area. I have noticed that she is a bit unsteady on her feet, I was worried about hip problems? But I also read that this may be due to her back. My question is, should I have her hips x-rayed to see if anything is going on? And would daily walking be beneficial or detrimental for her back condition?

July 26, 2017

Leeloo 's Owner

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1 Recommendations

Since Leeloo is a Bernese Mountain Dog, I would recommend x-rays regardless of the blocked vertebrae since Bernese Mountain Dogs are prone to hip dysplasia. The majority of dogs with blocked vertebrae may live without symptoms, this depends on the vertebrae that are fused and any nerves that are affected; usually lumbar vertebral block causes hind limb problems. Over activity like jumping and rough housing may result in pain (due to nerves being stretched in the back), you would have to monitor Leeloo during and after walks to determine if they cause pain and discomfort or if she just needs to be walked on a lead. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

July 26, 2017

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Spinal and Vertebral Birth Defects Average Cost

From 21 quotes ranging from $1,500 - $8,500

Average Cost

$4,500

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