Spinal problems in brachycephalic dogs

Brachycephalic dog sitting

What spinal problems are some brachycephalic dogs at risk of?

Some brachycephalic dogs, specifically those with coiled, very short or absent tails, are at an increased risk of abnormally shaped vertebrae that do not align correctly, which may lead to deformity of the spine, including curvature and twisting (kyphosis and/or scoliosis). This can lead to instability of the spinal column, which in some dogs leads to the spinal cord or the nerves arising from it becoming squashed and damaged.

Why are some brachycephalic dogs at risk of spinal problems?

Abnormally shaped vertebrae may be due to selection for screw-tails in some brachycephalic breeds. Curved or screw tails in these breeds result from abnormally shaped vertebrae in the tail region of the spine, and these breeds have genes that tend to cause the formation of abnormally shaped vertebrae elsewhere in the spinal column as well as in the tail.

What are the signs my dog may have spinal disease?

Signs of spinal cord disease as a result of spinal deformity can include:

  • pain
  • wobbliness
  • weakness in the back legs
  • walking differently
  • signs of muscle wastage in the back legs
  • an abnormally shaped back

In some dogs these signs may have a rapid onset, whilst in others they may develop gradually.

Could these signs change over time?

In some dogs, signs may progress over time and may lead to paralysis of the back legs and incontinence (inability to control passing urine or faeces). Other dogs may show no progression and may live with relatively stable signs once they have stopped growing.

What should I do if my dog shows signs of spinal disease?

If your dog shows any signs of spinal disease, you should seek advice from your vet to diagnose any spinal abnormalities.

How are spinal problems diagnosed?

Your vet may recommend your dog has an x-ray to show any abnormalities in the shape of your dog’s vertebrae and spinal cord; however, an MRI scan is needed to further detect any areas of spinal cord compression.

How are spinal problems treated?

In mild cases, no treatment may be needed other than monitoring dogs for signs of progression and making allowances for their gait abnormalities to avoid injury. In severely affected individuals, major surgery of the spine is required to attempt to stabilise the vertebrae and to stop the spinal cord being compressed.

Surgery

Spinal surgery is complicated, requiring specialist treatment and may not always be successful. Some dogs which are completely paralysed in their hind legs may not recover use of them after surgery, and long-term care of paralysed dogs may be considered by owners, including the use of mobility aids (e.g. carts) and incontinence management (e.g. bladder expression). Some owners may opt for euthanasia of severe cases where mobility and feeling in the back legs cannot be restored.

Article author

This article was written by Dr Rowena Packer from the Royal Veterinary College who has given The Kennel Club kind permission to replicate it. Dr Rowena Packer is a Research Fellow at the Royal Veterinary College. Her research interests include many areas of canine inherited disease including brachycephalic health and canine epilepsy.

Think your dog may be affected?

If you're worried about your dog's health, always contact your vet immediately!

We're not a veterinary organisation and so we can't give veterinary advice, but if you're worried about any of the issues raised in this article, please contact your local vet practice for further information.

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