Disorders of the Spinal Column and Cord in Dogs

ByWilliam B. Thomas, DVM, DACVIM-Neurology, Small Animal Neurology, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Tennessee
Reviewed/Revised Feb 2018 | Modified Mar 2018

Disorders of the spinal column and cord include congenital defects (discussed above), degenerative diseases, inflammatory and infectious diseases, tumors, nutritional diseases, injury and trauma, toxic disorders, and vascular diseases.

Degenerative Diseases

Degenerative lumbosacral stenosis is a disorder of the vertebrae in the lower back that causes compression of the nerve roots. It is most common in large breeds of dogs, especially German Shepherds. The cause is unknown. Signs typically begin at 3 to 7 years of age and may include difficulty using the hind legs, tail weakness, and incontinence. Dogs often experience pain when the lower back is touched or moved. Other signs include a loss of paw position sense, muscle wasting, or weakened reflexes in the hind legs. X-rays may show signs of degeneration, but diagnosis requires magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT). Dogs in which mild pain is the only sign may improve with 4 to 6 weeks of rest and pain medications. Specific treatment requires surgery. The outlook for recovery after surgery is good, although urinary incontinence may continue.

Abnormal development of the vertebrae in the neck squeezes the spinal cord in dogs with cervical spondylomyelopathy (also called wobbler syndrome and cervical malformation-malarticulation), There are two forms of the disease: disc-associated wobbler syndrome (DAWS) and bony-associated cervical spondylomyelopathy. DAWS affects middle-aged (approximately 7 years old), large-breed dogs, especially Doberman Pinschers. In this condition, one or more discs between the neck vertebrae extend into the spinal canal and squeeze the spinal cord. Bony-associated compression affects young (usually 4 years or younger), giant-breed dogs, such as Great Danes, Mastiffs, and Rottweilers. In this condition, abnormal bone growth occurs in the vertebrae of the neck and squeezes the spinal cord. For both forms of the disease, signs occur slowly or suddenly and include incoordination and an abnormal stride when walking on all four limbs. Weakness or paralysis in all legs as well as neck pain may also be present. X-rays can help rule out other conditions, but diagnosis requires magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT). Dogs with mild signs may improve with rest and medication, but surgery is often necessary. Most dogs (~80%) do well with surgery.

Degeneration of motor neurons is an inherited disease seen now and then in Brittany Spaniels, Pointers, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, and Rottweillers. It is also seen in cats, cattle, pigs, and goats. Also called spinal muscular atrophy, this disease is characterized by progressive weakness, shaking, muscle loss, and weak reflexes. It usually appears by 2 years of age. Electronic muscle testing and biopsy help document the nerve changes, but definitive diagnosis is based on examination of tissues with a microscope.

Degenerative myelopathy of dogs (also called chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy) is an inherited disease that occurs in German Shepherds, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Boxers, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, and other breeds. Affected dogs exhibit degeneration of nerve fibers (axons) and the sheath that surrounds them (myelin). Dogs with the condition are usually older than 8 years of age and slowly start to display nonpainful incoordination and weakness of the hind limbs. It can be confused with orthopedic disorders (such as arthritis), but dogs with degenerative myelopathy have difficulty sensing and placing their feet normally whereas arthritic dogs do not. Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for the disease, and most affected dogs are euthanized within 1–3 years.

Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH) is characterized by bony growths at the sites where a ligament, tendon, or joint capsule inserts into bone. It is also known as Forestier disease in human patients. Approximately 4% of dogs >1 yr old are affected, and the number affected increases with age. As with spondylosis deformans, Boxers are at increased risk, with ~40% showing signs of the disease. The chest and lower back are the areas most commonly affected. It is unclear how often DISH causes clinical signs, and in many cases there are changes seen on x-rays do not lead to clinical problems. However, spinal pain and stiffness is possible, and in those cases analgesics can be given as needed.

Intervertebral disc disease is a degenerative disease of the spinal column that results in compression of the spinal cord and/or spinal nerves. It is a common cause of spinal cord disorders in dogs, especially of small breeds, particularly the Dachshund, Beagle, Shih Tzu, Lhasa Apso, and Pekingese. In these breeds, spinal discs can begin degenerating in the first few months of life. A herniated or “slipped” disc causing severe signs can occur suddenly, as early as 1 to 2 years of age. In contrast, disc degeneration in large breeds of dogs typically occurs after the age of 5 years, and signs slowly continue to worsen. Herniated discs are most common in the neck and the middle of the back. A herniated disc in the neck leads to neck pain, stiffness, and muscle spasms. There may be muscle weakness or other signs, ranging from mild partial paralysis in the legs to total paralysis of all legs. A herniated disc in the middle of the back leads to back pain, and possibly curvature in the spine and a reluctance to move. Neurologic signs range from a loss of motor control in the hind legs to paralysis and incontinence. In paralyzed animals, it is important to determine whether pain sensation is present by pinching the toe or tail and watching whether the dog makes a behavioral response, such as a bark or turn of the head.

Diagnosis of herniated discs requires x‑rays, myelography, computed tomography (CT), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Dogs with minimal to moderate signs that can still feel pain often recover with a few weeks of rest. Anti-inflammatory or pain medication can be used, but generally only if the dog can be cage-rested. If the dog increases its activity, the disc(s) may extrude further and worsen the spinal cord compression. Unfortunately, signs recur in 30% to 40% of cases. In dogs with severe neurologic signs, surgery must be performed promptly to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord. Surgery is also needed if drug therapy is unsuccessful and signs return. The outlook for recovery after surgery is good if the dog can still feel pain. If surgery is delayed for more than 24 hours after pain perception is lost, the chances of recovery decrease.

Spondylosis deformans is characterized by the production of bony growths along the underside of the spinal vertebrae. It develops as dogs age, and 25%–70% of 9-year-old dogs are affected. It is especially common in Boxers. It does not typically cause signs, but dogs may experience back pain in rare cases.

Inflammatory and Infectious Diseases

Infectious and inflammatory diseases of the spinal column and spinal cord include bacterial, rickettsial, viral, fungal, protozoal, parasitic infections, and inflammation of an unknown cause. Many of these diseases, such as meningitis and encephalitis, can also affect the brain. Some of the more common infectious and inflammatory diseases that affect the spinal column or cord are discussed below.

Bacterial Diseases

Diskospondylitis is inflammation of the disc between 2 vertebrae (bones in the spinal column). The vertebrae can also be inflamed without infection of the disc. Causes include a bacterial or fungal infection in the bloodstream or a weakened immune system that allows infections to develop. Diskospondylitis occurs more often in larger breeds. The most common sign is spinal pain, with some dogs also having fever, depression, and weight loss. Neurologic signs can develop due to pressure on the spinal cord or, rarely, spread of infection to the spinal cord. X-rays are used to diagnose the condition, and blood and urine samples can identify the underlying infection. Signs usually disappear within 5 days of treatment with an appropriate antibiotic, but treatment should be continued for at least 8 weeks.

Rickettsial Diseases

Dogs that develop an infection of rickettsia or related bacteria sometimes show signs of spinal cord dysfunction. These bacteria cause disorders such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ehrlichiosis, which can lead to swelling in the spinal cord. Blood and cerebrospinal fluid samples can help identify the infection. Antibiotic treatment is given for 2 to 3 weeks. The outlook for a full recovery is good with early treatment, although the neurologic signs occasionally worsen despite treatment.

Viral Diseases

Canine distemper encephalomyelitis, a viral infection that can cause inflammation and degeneration of the cells in the brain and spinal cord, remains one of the most common central nervous system disorders in dogs worldwide. Neurologic signs may appear suddenly or may worsen slowly and progressively, depending on the area affected. Dogs can have fever, pain, discharge from their eyes and nose, skin changes, depression, diarrhea, and lack of appetite. Animals with neurologic signs can display twitching, chewing of the jaw, and seizures, and they can sometimes lose motor control or develop paralysis. Definitive diagnosis is difficult without a necropsy. There is no specific treatment, and the outlook for recovery is poor for dogs with severe signs. Vaccination is usually successful in preventing distemper.

Rabies is caused by a viral infection that spreads to the central nervous system from the peripheral nerves. Rabies is common throughout the world except in Japan and some other islands, including New Zealand, Iceland, and Hawaii. Initial signs are extremely variable, and rabies should be considered a possibility in any unvaccinated animal with severe neurologic dysfunction. Signs that the infection has reached the spinal cord include a loss of motor control and progressive paralysis, usually with a loss of reflexes. Affected animals typically, but not invariably, die within 2 to 7 days of when signs begin. There is no treatment. Vaccination is essential for prevention.

Fungal Diseases

Cryptococcus neoformans is the most common fungus to cause a central nervous system infection in dogs. Other fungal organisms may also invade the central nervous system. Infections often affect other organs, such as the lungs, eyes, skin, or bones. Signs of spinal cord infection include partial or total paralysis and spinal pain. Blood or cerebrospinal fluid tests are necessary to diagnose an infection and identify the organism.

Treatment and the outlook for recovery depend on the specific fungus involved. The drug fluconazole is often effective for Cryptococcus and Coccidioides infections. Infections with Blastomyces or Histoplasma fungi are difficult to treat, and the outlook for recovery in dogs infected with these fungi is uncertain.

Protozoal Diseases

Neosporosis is caused by Neospora caninum, a microorganism that can cause inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. Infection in young puppies typically causes paralysis with muscle rigidity in one or both hind legs. Other organs, including muscle, liver, and lungs, can also be affected. A blood test or tissue sample can be used to diagnose the infection. Early drug treatment may be effective, but the overall chances of recovery are poor.

Toxoplasmosis is caused by a protozoan called Toxoplasma gondii, which occasionally causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. Adult dogs do not typically show signs of the disease, but puppies can have a fever, diarrhea, trouble breathing, and seizures, and some may die. A blood test or tissue sample can be used to diagnose the infection. Various drugs are recommended for treatment.

Parasitic Diseases

Verminous myelitis is inflammation of the spinal cord caused by a parasite. The most common such parasite in dogs is a roundworm called Baylisascaris procyonis. Signs of spinal cord inflammation strike suddenly and severely, often affecting one side of the body more than the other, and may progressively worsen over time. This condition is difficult to diagnose except by examination of tissues after death. Drug treatment can be beneficial, but a full recovery is uncertain.

Inflammatory Diseases of Unknown Cause

Granulomatous meningoencephalomyelitis is an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system that occurs in dogs worldwide. The cause is unknown, but it may be a viral infection. There are 2 different forms of the disease that have different effects within the body, but the signs are similar, and often include neck pain and partial paralysis in all 4 legs. Adult dogs of any breed can be affected, but female small-breed dogs, especially Poodles, are at highest risk. Signs can occur suddenly or slowly worsen over several months. Diagnosis includes cerebrospinal fluid analysis, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT), and ruling out other diseases. Dogs often improve temporarily with drug treatment, but the longterm outlook is uncertain.


Tumors that affect the spinal column and cord in dogs include cancers of the bone, connective tissue, meninges, and nerve sheath, in addition to metastatic cancers, which are cancers that have spread from other parts of the body. A specific tumor called a nephroblastoma can affect young dogs (from 5 to 36 months of age), with German Shepherds affected most commonly. This tumor is frequently in the middle or lower back, causing progressively worsening partial paralysis in the hind legs. Imaging (including x-rays, myelography, computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging) and surgical biopsy are used to identify and confirm a diagnosis of spinal cancer. Surgery is possible in some cases.

Nutritional Disorders

Dogs with a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency can display a lack of appetite, depression, rear leg weakness, seizures, coma, and death. Causes include improperly formulated dog food, vegetarian diets, food preserved with sulfur dioxide, and raw fish diets. The condition is diagnosed based on signs, diet, and response to vitamin B1 supplementation.

Injury and Trauma

Spinal cord injuries usually occur as a result of a spinal fracture or dislocation. Common causes in dogs include automobile accidents, bite wounds, and gunshot wounds. The injury not only causes initial damage to the spinal cord, but also causes secondary damage from swelling, bleeding, destruction of the nerve sheath, and tissue decay. Signs of spinal trauma typically have a sudden and severe onset, and may progressively worsen. Severe spinal cord injury to the middle or lower back may cause a rigid paralysis, or a limp paralysis that spreads to the entire body over several days and leads to death from respiratory paralysis. Fractured or dislocated vertebrae can often be seen on x-rays, but computed tomography (CT) may be necessary to see some fractures. Drug treatment can be helpful, especially if started within the first few hours of injury. Animals with mild neurologic signs from injury often recover after 4 to 6 weeks of cage rest and pain medications. Surgery is necessary for some types of injuries that cause severe neurologic signs. In dogs that have lost the ability to feel pain at locations below the spinal injury, the outlook for recovery is poor.

Poisoning and Toxic Disorders

Delayed organophosphate intoxication can be seen if a dog eats or comes into skin contact with insecticides or pesticides that contain organophosphates. In addition to the signs of severe exposure, delayed paralysis can develop 1 to 4 weeks after exposure. Partial paralysis of the hind legs worsens progressively, and occasionally all 4 legs become paralyzed. A veterinarian will need a history of the dog’s possible chemical exposure to make the correct diagnosis. The outlook for recovery is poor for animals with severe signs.

Tetanus is caused by toxins produced by Clostridium tetani bacteria that usually enter the body at the site of a wound. Dogs are fairly resistant to tetanus, but cases do sometimes occur. Signs usually develop within 5 to 10 days of infection and include muscle stiffness and rigid leg extension, inability to swallow, protruding eyelids, and locking of the jaw and facial muscles. In severe cases, the animal may be unable to stand as a result of muscle spasms. Treatment consists of wound care, antibiotics to kill any remaining organisms, and tetanus antitoxin. In mild cases, a dog may recover completely with early treatment. In severe cases, death may occur due to respiratory paralysis.

Blood Vessel Diseases

Pieces of cartilage (likely from the disks found between vertebrae) can block blood flow to the spinal cord in a condition called fibrocartilagenous embolism. It is usually seen in adult dogs, especially large and giant breeds, Miniature Schnauzers and Shetland Sheepdogs. It typically begins after jumping or running and causes a sudden, nonpainful change in the dog's gait. Magnetic resonance imaging is used to make the diagnosis. Mildly affected dogs usually improve within 1–2 weeks, but the outlook is poor for severely affected dogs or those that do not show signs of improvement.

For More Information

Also see professional content regarding diseases of the spinal column and cord.

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