Can Dogs Live with Syringomyelia?

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Introduction

Syringomyelia is a relatively common condition caused when fluid-filled sacs develop on a dog's spinal cord, resulting in abnormal sensation, stiffness, headaches and intense pain. Usually associated with Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Griffon Bruxellois, this congenital condition is also known to affect a host of other breeds.

Syringomyelia is serious and degenerates progressively, and watching your dog suffer from the pain and discomfort the condition causes is quite distressing.

However, while there's no cure for syringomyelia, there are several treatment options available that are focused mainly on pain relief. It's also possible in some cases for a dog with syringomyelia to live a happy life for several years after diagnosis, so let's take a closer look at what you can do to help your dog stay in the best shape possible.

Signs and Symptoms of Syringomyelia

If you've done any research into breeds like the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel before buying or adopting a new pet, there's a good chance you've come across mentions of syringomyelia before and have a good idea of what symptoms to look out for. But if you're not familiar with the condition and you're the proud owner of one of the breeds that's prone to syringomyelia — we've listed several of them further down the page — it's important to familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms.

The symptoms of syringomyelia vary depending on how advanced the disease is and the age of your dog. In fact, dogs with mild cases may not show any symptoms at all, and the condition may only be detected because your pet requires an MRI for some other reason. At the other end of the spectrum, some dogs show severe signs of pain that are impossible for an owner to miss.
Symptoms to watch for include:

  • Pain in the head, neck and forelimbs
  • Sensitivity to touch in those areas
  • Whining, yelping or crying
  • Holding their head high or their neck at a certain angle to prevent pain
  • Becoming withdrawn, depressed or irritable
  • A weak or wobbling gait
  • Frequent scratching of ears, neck, chest and shoulders
  • Weakness and numbness of the limbs
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control

Not only do symptoms vary from one dog to the next, but several of them can also be associated with a range of other medical conditions, so make sure you take your dog to the vet as soon as possible to get an accurate diagnosis.

Body Language

Take a closer look at your dog's body language for any telltale signs that they may be suffering from syringomyelia, such as:
  • Whining
  • Scratching
  • Weakness
  • Whimpering

Other Signs

Other signs you should keep an eye out for include:
  • Signs of pain around the head, neck and front limbs
  • Uncontrollable urge to scratch those areas
  • Yelping or crying
  • Holding neck or head at an unusual angle
  • Depression

The Science of Syringomyelia

Syringomyelia refers to the formation of fluid-filled cavities in the spinal cord. This usually occurs as a result of an abnormality where the skull joins the vertebrae of the neck, causing cerebrospinal fluid from the brain to be forced down the center of the spinal cord. The tissues of the spinal cord then become distended and cavities form as a result.

While our understanding of the disease is still limited, it's thought that syringomyelia is a congenital condition. A shortened skull is one of the key risk factors associated with syringomyelia, so brachycephalic breeds (dogs with short snouts) and miniature breeds could potentially be predisposed to the condition.

Syringomyelia has been found in a number of breeds, including:

  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • King Charles Spaniel
  • Griffon Bruxellois
  • Yorkshire Terrier
  • Maltese Terrier
  • Chihuahua
  • Miniature Dachshund
  • Miniature Poodle
  • Toy Poodle
  • Bichon Frise
  • Pug
  • Shih Tzu
  • Pomeranian
  • Staffordshire Bull Terrier
  • French Bulldog

The condition usually starts after two and a half years of age and, in serious cases, can cause severe and prolonged pain for affected dogs. However, it's still not yet clear exactly what proportion of canines are affected by the condition. 

One US survey of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels showed that 3.4 per cent of those dogs tested showed clinical signs of syringomyelia, while a voluntary screening program across the UK and the Netherlands revealed that the lifetime risk of developing syringomyelia in the study population was 55 percent.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Syringomyelia

If you notice any of the signs or symptoms of syringomyelia, get your dog to the vet for a full check-up. If your veterinarian suspects syringomyelia, the condition is usually diagnosed with a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. 

This gives your vet the chance to examine the structure of the skull and spine for any abnormalities that could disrupt the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, and can also be used to detect borderline cases of the condition. It's possible that there will one day also be a genetic test to detect syrongomyelia, but no such option is available as yet.

Treatment of the condition usually focuses on pain relief, with medication chosen as the best option for most dogs. There are several types of medication that can be given to alleviate the symptoms of syringomyelia, including drugs that target the nervous system and nerve-associated pain, as well as anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids and other medications designed to decrease the production of fluid in the brain and spinal cord.

If this medical management is unsuccessful or if a dog is suffering from a particularly severe case of syringomyelia, surgery may be recommended. There is a procedure designed to improve the shape of the back of the skull and relieve pressure on the skull and spine, but the results of this operation can be variable. While some dogs improve, others will continue to show persistent signs or may show a recurrence of symptoms.

All in all, the prognosis for dogs suffering from syringomyelia is mixed. While it can't be completely cured, the condition can be effectively managed in some cases. However, in severe cases where a dog is experiencing intense pain and the likelihood of successful treatment is minimal, euthanasia may be recommended as the most humane course of action.

If you've got any questions or concerns about syringomyelia, either in your own dog or a dog you're considering buying, speak to your vet for advice.

How to React if Your Dog has Syringomyelia:

  • Raise food and water dishes as your dog might find it painful or uncomfortable to lower their head.
  • Dogs with syringomyelia often like sleeping with their head raised, so consider choosing bedding with an elevated edge.
  • Consider using a harness instead of a collar when walking your dog.