Various types of disease can affect a dog’s spine. You will start to see clinical signs of spinal disease when something causes or puts pressure on a dog’s spinal cord.
Clinical signs can also be seen with infection, inflammation, and other conditions that affect nerve transmission through the spinal cord. Compressive lesions are most common, but other diseases and conditions can cause these same signs (embolism, bleeding, infection, inflammation, etc.).
Clinical signs associated with spinal issues in dogs can vary, but include:
Tripping or falling
Loss of balance
Dragging their feet when walking
Difficulty sitting or standing
Inability to control pee or poop
Vocalizing or showing signs of pain (trembling, whining, reluctance to move)
If you notice these signs in your dog, have them checked by your vet right away. In many cases, making an early diagnosis of spinal issues and initiating appropriate care can lead to a better outcome for your dog.
Does Your Dog Need Spinal Surgery?
Depending on the cause and the severity of signs, spinal issues may be managed medically or surgically or both. These issues will always require medications, even with surgery.
Your veterinarian will perform a full orthopedic and neurologic exam to understand the cause of your dog’s symptoms. Diagnostic tests such as x-rays and advanced imaging like a CT scan or MRI are often needed.
In many cases, a referral to a board-certified veterinary surgeon and/or neurologist is required to not only confirm a diagnosis but to provide medical and surgical care.
If your dog has lost feeling in their limbs or lost the ability to move them, and the cause of spinal disease has been established, then surgery may be recommended. The goal for surgery is to alleviate pain and increase your dog’s likelihood of a good quality of life (compared to if surgery was not performed).
Dog spinal surgery is a highly specialized skill that not all veterinarians are trained for. If your dog needs spinal surgery, it will likely be performed by a board-certified surgeon or veterinary neurologist, and it may need to be performed on an emergency basis at a specialized veterinary hospital or university.
Types of Dog Spinal Surgery
Several types of procedures can be performed, depending on the type, cause, and location of the spinal issue.
Hemilaminectomy in Dogs
Hemilaminectomy is one of the most common types of spinal surgeries performed in dogs. This type of dog spinal surgery is usually chosen to help manage disc disease. For this surgery, the location of the herniated disc is usually somewhere between the shoulders and the hips, also called the thoracolumbar region.
Surgery involves removing small pieces of bone where the vertebrae connect, as well as some of the vertebral bone that lies over the spinal cord. This can relieve pressure on the spinal cord and can be performed over several affected adjacent areas.
Dorsal laminectomy is similar to a hemilaminectomy procedure except that in a dorsal laminectomy, the surgeon approaches a dog’s spinal canal from the top rather than the sides. This procedure is usually only performed over one affected area. Some of the connecting vertebral bone is left in place, and only a small part is removed the relieve pressure over the affected area.
Ventral slot is a procedure performed when a disc problem affects a dog’s spinal column in the neck region. This involves drilling holes in the vertebrae to remove disc material and provide space for the spinal cord to depressurize.
Fenestration may be chosen in cases where a dog is prone to compressive spinal cord disease or has had compression in other areas of the spine. It is more of a preventative procedure and is not considered a true decompressive surgery like the others.
Fenestration involves making an incision in an area over the cord that will allow for disc material to move away from the spinal cord (rather than compressing it), should a problem occur. This can prevent the signs associated with cord compression.
Dog Spinal Surgery Recovery
Be sure to schedule time to talk with your vet before and after surgery so you understand the expectations for your dog's recovery and timeline.
Once the surgery is performed, your dog will likely spend several days (or more) recovering in the hospital. The nature of your dog’s disease and the signs present before their spinal surgery often dictate the length of your dog’s recovery and prognosis.
Post-surgery, all dogs will require good pain management. When your dog is discharged to your care, be sure you understand what medication they are expected to receive and how often. Ask the veterinarian to explain the pain-management plan and signs that might suggest your dog is in pain, such as:
Reluctance to move
Some dogs will require more intensive care than others. If your dog was unable to urinate before surgery, then they may require assistance for some time afterward. This involves putting pressure on the abdomen to manually release urine from the bladder. In the hospital, a urinary catheter may be used.
Rest and Activity Restriction
After spinal surgery, your dog needs a quiet and comfortable place to rest at home. An orthopedic bed can be very helpful in these cases.
Activity restriction will likely be recommended for several weeks, which means short leash walks and keeping your dog confined to prevent running, jumping, or stair-climbing. Your veterinary surgeon will provide specific instructions on the type of movement that is okay for your dog.
Physical Therapy and Rehab
Physical therapy and rehabilitation exercises are often recommended. In some cases, your vet may offer physical therapy services at the hospital. Your vet will also need to follow up with your dog to check their progress.
If your dog lost the ability to stand and walk on their own before surgery, it may take several weeks before you see some improvement in their mobility. Use of a sling or other type of support device may be recommended by their vet.