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Spinal problems in brachycephalic dogs

Vertebrae are the linked bones that make up the backbone of the dog and protect the spinal cord. Normal vertebrae are symmetrical and fit together with adjoining vertebrae. 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.

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 and wobbliness and/or weakness on the back legs. In some dogs these signs may have a rapid onset, whilst in others they may develop gradually. On visual inspection, some dogs may show muscle wastage in the back legs, and some dogs may have an abnormally shaped back. Signs in some dogs may be subtle, such as abnormalities in their gait (the way they walk), and owners should be vigilant for any changes in the way their dog moves. 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. 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 is needed to further detect any areas of spinal cord compression. 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. This is a complicated surgery, 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.

Who can I contact for further advice?

The Kennel Club is not a veterinary organisation and is unable to provide general or case specific veterinary advice.  If you have any questions regarding any of the issues discussed in this article then please contact your local veterinary practice for further information.

This article was written by Dr Rowena Packer from the Royal Veterinary College who has given the Kennel Club kind permission to replicate this article.   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.