How do you know if your dog has spinal problems

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German Shepherd laying on a dock.
German Shepherd Laying On A Dock.

Spinal stenosis, and more specifically lumbosacral stenosis, is a painful disease affecting the spinal cord of a dog and can cause urinary, bowel, and walking problems. Knowing what this disease is, how it is diagnosed, and what type of treatment options exist can help prepare a dog owner in case their dog is diagnosed with this problem.

What Is Spinal Stenosis in Dogs?

Spinal stenosis is more commonly referred to as lumbosacral stenosis and is a disease affecting the structures of the spinal cord in the lumbar and sacral regions of the spine. The spinal cord is protected in the body by the boney spine and dogs with spinal stenosis have different problems that put pressure on the part of the spinal cord and nerves near the hips and tail. This results in a variety of problematic symptoms for a dog in the hind end. Spinal stenosis can also occur in the cervical region of the spine but this is referred to as Wobbler syndrome and produces different symptoms than lumbosacral stenosis.

Signs of Spinal Stenosis in Dogs

  • Difficulty rising after sitting or lying down
  • Difficulty doing the stairs
  • Pain in the hind end
  • Weakness in the hind end
  • Urinary or fecal incontinence
  • Knuckling and dragging of the hind paws
  • Inability to wag or raise the tail

Spinal stenosis affects the hind quarters of a dog and symptoms can vary depending on how severe the disease is or where and how the spinal cord is affected. Most dogs experience difficulty in using their hind limbs, specifically when they try to get up after laying down or sitting and when they are trying to go up steps. General weakness in the hind end may be observed as wobbling or stumbling while walking and sometimes the paws will even knuckle over and drag on the ground.

Some dogs experience severe pain in the hind end due to the nerves that are affected and will cry out if their hind end is touched. Nerves that are affected may also cause a dog with spinal stenosis to lose control of its bladder and bowels so accidents in the house and puddles of urine where the dog was laying may occur.

white and black dalmatian dog near house
white and black dalmatian dog near house

Finally, a dog with spinal stenosis may not be able to pick up their tail or wag it. If a dog owner tries to lift a dog's tail, it may also cry out in pain or whine.

Causes of Spinal Stenosis in Dogs

Spinal stenosis is a degenerative disease so this means it develops as a dog ages. It is thought that genetics may play a role in this disease, especially in German Shepherds, but some dogs are born with abnormally shaped vertebrae which can lead to spinal stenosis. More research needs to be done to fully understand the cause of this disease.

Diagnosing Spinal Stenosis in Dogs

If you suspect your dog is developing spinal stenosis then your veterinarian will discuss the symptoms you are seeing at home and perform a full physical examination. Other diseases may be ruled out by doing some blood and urine tests but X-rays of the spine will need to be taken to look at the vertebrae shape and spacing. In order to make a final diagnosis though, an MRI or CT scan will need to be performed.

Treatment of Spinal Stenosis in Dogs

Activity restriction along with medications to address inflammation and pain is the typical treatment plan if surgery is not an option for your dog. Some dogs with spinal stenosis do well with this treatment plan but if the disease is severe enough, surgical intervention may be the only option.

adult long-coated brown dog
adult long-coated brown dog
woman kissing brown and white dog
woman kissing brown and white dog
shallow focus photo of white Siberian husky
shallow focus photo of white Siberian husky

A surgery called a laminectomy will be performed if surgery is elected. During this procedure the doctor will relieve the pressure that is being put on the nerves and the spinal cord. Not every veterinarian is comfortable performing this type of surgery so you will most likely need to visit a specialty hospital for this procedure to be done.

Post-operative care includes medications to manage pain and inflammation and may also require physical rehabilitation, cold therapy laser, and various supplements.

How to Prevent Spinal Stenosis in Dogs

Since spinal stenosis is thought to be a genetic or congenital issue, the only way to help prevent it from occurring in dogs is to screen at-risk breeds for spinal issues prior to breeding them. German shepherds are more prone to developing spinal stenosis so X-rays of the backbone should be obtained to ensure there are no apparent abnormalities of the vertebrae in this breed..