What is Spinal Cord Disease?
Spinal cord disease in dogs can be very concerning to pet owners, as the symptoms are often acute, and affect their movement or control of their bodily functions. When disease occurs within the spinal cord, dogs often present with difficulty walking, loss of coordination or balance, partial or total paralysis, and/or pain. The spinal cord cannot regenerate when damaged so diseases in this location are particularly serious and should be assessed by a veterinarian promptly.Degenerative myelopathy is the general medical term that refers to the disease of a dog's spinal cord or bone marrow. The spinal cord is encased inside the spinal column and runs from the brain down to the base of the tail. The spine carries crucial information from the brain to the rest of the body, and controls functions like movement, sensation, urination and defecation.
Symptoms of Spinal Cord Disease in Dogs
Symptoms can vary depending on the diagnosis and stage of the disease. Paying close attention to the onset and progression of the symptoms will provide important information to veterinarian. Commonly seen symptoms of a disease process in the spinal cord:
- Changes in gait
- Urinary or fecal incontinence
- Partial or total Paralysis
- Loss of balance or coordination
Listed below are commonly seen diseases of the spinal cord to be considered after trauma and secondary diseases have been ruled out through blood work and imaging.
- Degenerative Myelopathy is a progressive condition typically seen in older dogs. The white matter of the spinal cord degenerates over time and ultimately results in partial or total paralysis.
- Tumor growth of the spinal cord can be either benign or malignant; however, even a benign tumor can cause spinal dysfunction. The symptoms often present slowly and without pain initially.
- Syringomyelia and Hydromyelia are two similar diseases which result in an excess of fluid in the spinal cord. This disease is more commonly seen in small breed dogs.
Causes of Spinal Cord Disease in Dogs
The causes of many serious spinal cord diseases are unknown, but research has found that genetics and age may play a role.
There is evidence to suggest in some cases there is an underlying genetic component. Degenerative Myelopathy for example is commonly diagnosed in medium to large size dogs. Neuroblastoma, an invasive tumor, is diagnosed mostly in young German Shepherds.
Spinal Cord Disease seems to be age related in many cases. Degenerative Myelopathy for example is rarely seen in dogs under 6 years of age. With a few exceptions, tumors also become more common as the age of the dog advances.
Diagnosis of Spinal Cord Disease in Dogs
The veterinarian will first rule out any trauma from an injury. Traumatic injuries to the spinal cord are very serious and will be handled differently from a diagnostic standpoint than a disease of the spinal cord. He or she will then distinguish between a disease of the spinal cord and a s disease process of the spinal column or discs surrounding the spinal column that may be impacting the spinal cord on a secondary level. After, traumatic injury has been ruled out there are several types of diagnostic procedures which may be used to find a diagnosis.
- Physical Examination: A Veterinarian will typically first perform a physical examination to check for any neurologic or physical abnormalities. A thorough examination will help the veterinarian decide what diagnostic tests or imaging is necessary.
- Blood Work and Urinalysis: Preliminary blood work will provide a look into the overall health of the dog, and may provide clues as to whether an infectious process, and a urinalysis will be performed if incontinence is present.
- Imaging: An X-ray will likely be performed at the time to rule out obvious tumors or structural abnormalities. An MRI is usually recommended but other imaging tools may be recommended such as a CT or myelography to look closely at the spinal cord. The MRI and CT scan allow the veterinarian a detailed view of the spinal cord and are a critical diagnostic tool.</p>
Treatment of Spinal Cord Disease in Dogs
The treatment of serious spinal cord diseases is difficult. The delicate spinal cord provides crucial information to the rest of the body from the brain and cannot heal itself.
Surgery is often the only available treatment for diseases such as tumors or Syringomyelia/Hydromyelia. Surgery is considered in cases where the benefits outweigh the risks of further damage to the spinal cord. In the case of tumors, the location of the tumor and its size 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 in order to reduce the pressure inside may be considered in severe cases.
In the case of Degenerative Myelopathy and other progressive diseases management of the symptoms and the dog’s quality of life may be the only treatment option.
Recovery of Spinal Cord Disease in Dogs
It’s important to continue monitoring symptoms. If symptoms worsen a follow-up appointment should be made. As treatment options are often limited for spinal cord diseases, its important the disease be managed to in order to provide the best quality of life to the dog. Dogs should be continuously monitored for worsening symptoms from progressive diseases like Degenerative Myelopathy or a growing tumor. There are numerous tools available to help manage spinal disease.
: Pain medications or anti-inflammatory medications may be prescribed to manage pain if indicated. Carefully monitoring symptoms will help to determine the best dosage over time.
: Weight should be managed to prevent any additional pressure on the spine. Maintaining muscle tone through mild exercise and physical therapy may be useful in some cases.
Living Space Alterations
: It may be necessary to isolate the dog to one floor of the house if stairs become challenging or dangerous. Small steps can be helpful for dogs that rest on couches or beds, or to access the car more easily. Making these small changes can help the dog live a more autonomous life, and help an owner who is physically unable to lift the dog.
Author: WAG Staff