What Is Scoliosis in Dogs?
A dog’s backbone (spinal column) is composed of many smaller bones known as vertebrae, which are connected by spongy intervertebral discs and groups of muscles (paraspinal muscles).
Together, they allow movement, stabilization, and protection of the spine and spinal cord. Scoliosis often occurs as a congenital birth defect. The spinal column develops an abnormal curvature or position.
While scoliosis in dogs is uncommon, it can be acquired due to certain diseases and trauma. It can affect any portion of the spinal column, including the cervical (neck), thoracic (mid-back), and lumbar (lower back) regions, and is characterized by three types:
Torticollis—This is seen as a lateral curvature of the cervical vertebral column.
Kyphosis—An abnormal flexion of the thoracolumbar (mild-lower) spine, which may occur secondary to pain referred from the abdomen or in dogs with intervertebral disc disease (IVDD).
Lordosis—Much less common in dogs, this manifests as a downward curvature of the spine and is often secondary to diseases of the paraspinal muscles.
Dogs with scoliosis are at a higher risk of spinal cord compression, which can result in pain and a range of neurological problems. These problems can vary in severity, including limb weakness and an uncoordinated gait.
Fortunately, for many affected dogs, scoliosis is not painful. Because of this, scoliosis in dogs is usually not treated as a medical emergency.
Symptoms of Scoliosis in Dogs
Usually, the first noticeable symptom of scoliosis in dogs is a deviation in the dog’s spine. It may curve to the left or right, or your dog’s back may appear to be hunched. Since scoliosis can also occur due to trauma or underlying neurologic diseases, your dog may experience additional symptoms, including:
Forelimb or hind limb weakness
Uncoordinated walk (ataxia)
Head hanging low
Crossing of the limbs
Unwillingness to play, run, or jump
Stiffness in the neck or back
Causes of Scoliosis in Dogs
Scoliosis in dogs is typically congenital, originating from vertebral malformations that they’ve had since birth. These malformations become more noticeable at a young age, often between 4 and 10 months old, the period when most growth occurs.
Congenital scoliosis is usually associated with other vertebral malformations, such as hemivertebrae (abnormally shaped vertebrae). This malformation often appears to be wedge-shaped.
Hemivertebrae form when both halves of the vertebral body fail to fuse properly during fetal development. They are more often found in the thoracic vertebrae and can occur either singly or in multiples. This condition is more prevalent in brachycephalic breeds like the French Bulldog, English Bulldog, Pug, and Boston Terrier.
Other (rare) causes of scoliosis in dogs include:
Trauma affecting the vertebrae, ribs, or associated muscles and ligaments.
Inflammatory or immune-mediated diseases, such as immune-mediated meningomyelitis
Secondary degenerative changes of intervertebral discs and intervertebral disc extrusions (herniation) along the vertebral column
Associated condition of spinal cord disease, such as syringomyelia (fluid pockets within the spinal cord), seen in breeds like the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Brussels Griffon suffering from Chiari-like malformation (herniation of the brain tissue into the spinal canal).
How Veterinarians Diagnose Scoliosis in Dogs
A veterinarian can typically diagnose scoliosis through a combination of a physical exam and X-rays.
If your dog has neurologic disease or extreme pain, your veterinarian may recommend blood work and infectious disease testing.
They may also refer your dog to a veterinary neurologist for an MRI or CT scan and a CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) tap, which are conducted under anesthesia. If these tests are not doable, your veterinarian may perform a myelogram, a procedure in which contrast dye is injected into the fluid surrounding your dog’s spinal cord.
Treatment of Scoliosis in Dogs
Early diagnosis and treatment are considered factors in a successful outcome for a dog.
Mild forms of scoliosis may not require any treatment. However, if your dog is in pain, then your vet might prescribe medications such as gabapentin, anti-inflammatories like an NSAID, methocarbamol (a muscle relaxer), or a combination of these.
If your dog is showing neurologic symptoms, then your vet may prescribe a course of antibiotics or steroids.
Management of scoliosis in dogs is often associated with a poor prognosis, and surgery is the ideal treatment choice. There have been successful results with spinal stabilization.
For dogs with severe symptoms and/or refractory pain, humane euthanasia may be recommended.
Recovery and Management of Scoliosis in Dogs
The prognosis for dogs affected by scoliosis varies. Over time, your dog’s pain and symptoms may worsen, necessitating additional follow-ups or testing. Because of this, it’s important to work with your vet to help manage your dog’s condition and ensure the best possible outcome.
Dogs who have undergone surgery usually require several weeks of recuperation with cage rest. During this recovery period, physical therapy may be recommended. Physical therapy may include:
- Underwater treadmills
- Laser therapy
These therapies assist with walking, strength building, preserving muscle, inflammation reduction, and improved mobility.
If your dog is given prescription medications, it’s likely that they will be needed for a long time, if not for life. Do not discontinue these medications unless instructed by your vet.
Prevention of Scoliosis in Dogs
Scoliosis is not entirely preventable, but responsible breeding practices and screening of breeding dogs can help reduce the likelihood of passing on the condition to puppies.
If you have a breed of dog that’s predisposed to scoliosis, it’s recommended to have them screened as a puppy, so that treatment measures—if needed—can begin immediately.
If you notice any curvature or deformity in your dog’s spine at any point, it’s important to have your dog evaluated by their vet right away.
Scoliosis in Dogs FAQs
How long do dogs with scoliosis live?
Dogs living with scoliosis can have a normal quality of life if there is minimal neurologic impact. Certain conditions caused by scoliosis in dogs can respond to therapy with early diagnosis and treatment.
Featured Image: Filippo Carlot/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images
Claudia, M., et al. (2018). Evaluation of the influence of kyphosis and scoliosis on intervertebral disc extrusion in French bulldogs. BMC Veterinary Research 14(5).
Poad, L., DeDecker, S., & Fenn, J. (2021, June 21). Acquired cervical scoliosis in two dogs with inflammatory central nervous system disease. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine 35, 2421–2426.
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