Spinal Surgery in Dogs

Rhiannon Koehler, DVM
By Rhiannon Koehler, DVM on Apr. 30, 2024
A vet and a black Lab.

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What Is Spinal Surgery in Dogs?

Spinal surgery in dogs is usually done to relieve pressure on a pup's spinal cord.

Your dog’s spinal cord is important for transmitting signals between the brain and body. Compression of the – cord is not only painful, but it can affect the ability of nerves to transmit signals, resulting in weakness and paralysis.

Spinal surgery is performed under general anesthesia, typically by a neurosurgery specialist at a specialty clinic or university. In most cases, the surgery involves making cuts in the vertebral column—the bones around the spine—to relieve pressure.

While most dogs won’t ever need spinal surgery, some breeds are significantly more likely to undergo the procedure. For example, about 1 in 4 Dachshunds will experience intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), a condition for which spinal surgery is a relatively common treatment recommendation.

Types of Spinal Surgery in Dogs

Types of spinal surgeries in dogs include:

  • Hemilaminectomy: This procedure is most often performed on the part of the spine that runs through the chest down toward the lower back (thoracolumbar region). The vertebra is approached from the top, and a portion of the vertebra is removed from the side.

    • Herniated disc material, cysts, tumors, or other concerns can be addressed in this way. Removal of a portion of the vertebra, as well as any disc material or masses, relieves pressure on the spinal cord.

  • Dorsal laminectomy: In a dorsal laminectomy, a window of bone is removed from the top (dorsal) region of the vertebra, including the spinous process (the wing-like protrusion from the top) of the vertebra. This is more common in the lower back (lumbar) region.

  • Ventral slot: With this procedure, a small slot is drilled into the bottom of the two vertebrae on each side of a disc. This allows for disc material to be removed and for spinal decompression to occur. This technique is reserved for vertebrae in the neck.

  • Fenestration: Fenestration is a preventative surgery performed on the disc spaces near a herniated disc. A small cut is made in the soft area between the vertebrae so that if material herniates, it goes through the cut instead of up into the spinal cord.

Anatomy of a Dog Spine

A dog’s spine is protected by the backbone, which is the column of vertebrae. The spine runs from the base of the skull to the tail. The vertebrae allow for movement and flexibility in the spine.

Each vertebra has a wing-like protrusion from the top called the spinous process. The joints between vertebrae are called intervertebral discs. These discs cushion the vertebrae.

Each disc has an outer shell (annulus fibrosus) and a softer interior (nucleus pulposus). These discs can rupture up into the spinal canal, which houses the dog’s spine.

Why Would a Dog Need Spinal Surgery?

Anything that causes pressure on the spinal cord could potentially necessitate surgery.

The most common condition necessitating spinal surgery in dogs is IVDD, which occurs when material in the disc herniates (ruptures or protrudes) into the spinal cord, compressing the cord.

Other conditions that could require spinal surgery include:

Benefits of Spinal Surgery in Dogs

Spinal surgery in dogs can relieve pressure on a pup's spinal cord. In some cases, surgery is the difference between a dog becoming paralyzed or being able to walk again.

Effectiveness of Spinal Surgery in Dogs

Your dog’s spinal surgery is an individual experience. While some dogs do extremely well after spinal surgery, others may experience a worsening of their condition. Overall, dogs with surgical treatment have better outcomes than dogs treated without surgery.

A 2022 study indicated the following success rate with spinal surgery vs. those with medical management alone.

Dog’s Clinical Signs

Medical Management Alone

Spinal Surgery and Medical Management

Weak in hind end but can walk



Weak in hind end, unable to walk, but can feel limbs



Paralyzed in hind end but can feel deep pain (imagine smashing a toe)



Paralyzed in hind end and cannot feel deep pain




Cost of Spinal Surgery in Dogs

Spinal surgery in dogs is costly. It requires advanced imaging (MRI), a lengthy and complicated surgical procedure, and recovery while your pet is monitored in a veterinary hospital for several days after surgery.

Generally, a large dog’s spinal surgery is going to be more costly than a small dog’s surgery. The necessary imaging can range from $1,000 to $3,000.

A rough estimate for the surgery would be $3,000 to $8,000. For large dogs, the total can be over $10,000 for all necessary components (imaging, surgery, monitoring).

Preparation for Spinal Surgery in Dogs

Many of these surgeries are performed because it’s an emergency situation—your dog lost the ability to walk, has been brought to the emergency room, and is now having surgery to prevent further loss of nerve function. In these cases, there is little time for preparation.

If you have a dog breed that frequently experiences a condition like IVDD (such as Dachshunds), it’s smart to prepare an emergency fund to help cover the procedure, should your pet need surgery.

If the surgery is planned, your veterinarian will likely tell you not to feed your pet the night before. Be sure to follow their specific instructions.

In the hospital, dogs receiving this surgery will have an MRI performed before the procedure. This is how the veterinarian determines which discs are affected.

The dog will have a catheter placed in a vein so they can receive pain medications and fluids during and after the surgery. If the affected area is in the neck, the front of the neck may also be shaved. For the spine, the dog’s back will be shaved.

Complications of Spinal Surgery in Dogs

Spine surgery in dogs is a major procedure. As such, it has a risk of serious complications. Risks can include hemorrhage (significant bleeding), infection, and trauma to the nerves.

Of all dogs that have surgery after developing IVDD, about 2% will develop a fatal condition called myelomalacia. Around 10–15% of dogs that have lost the ability to move or feel their legs will develop this condition after surgery.

Myelomalacia means the spinal cord is undergoing necrosis (dying). The dog will become paralyzed, unable to control urination or defecation, and will progress to experience respiratory distress if the condition is allowed to further worsen.

Some dogs will undergo the surgery and simply not show improvement. For dogs who are unable to walk or experiencing incontinence, this could lead to humane euthanasia.

Post-Op Care and Recovery for Spinal Surgery in Dogs

The post-operative recovery period can be difficult for pet parents. Your dog may be experiencing significant pain, and you’ll need to be patient as they hopefully regain mobility and function.

For at-home pain management, your veterinarian may recommend a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain medication such as carprofen, as well as gabapentin for nerve pain.

Your dog may also receive muscle relaxants like methocarbamol. If your dog’s pain isn’t responsive to the pain medications supplied by your veterinarian, speak with your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Try to provide a soft bed for your pup to rest. Your veterinarian will instruct you on how to help your pup walk, which may include using a sling.

If your dog has had neck surgery, a leash should not be placed around the neck. You may have to help your pup with eating and drinking because they may have difficulty lowering their head to the bowls.

Rehabilitation and physical therapy will be recommended for your dog. This may include seeing a physical rehab specialist, or your veterinarian may supply at-home exercises for you to complete with your pet.

The recovery period after this surgery is long. You can expect a six-to-eight-week period of restricted activity and rehabilitation.

Alternatives to Spinal Surgery in Dogs

For dogs with mild forms of spinal compression, medical management alone may be effective. Medical management usually includes:

  • Strict activity restriction

  • Anti-inflammatory pain medication (e.g., carprofen)

  • Gabapentin for nerve pain

  • Muscle relaxants

  • Monitoring for pressure sores

There is also some evidence that electroacupuncture could be associated with improved outcomes when combined with medical management. Physical rehabilitation can also be considered in dogs, whether they undergo surgery or not.

Spinal Surgery in Dogs FAQs

What is the life expectancy after spine surgery for dogs?

Life expectancy varies after spinal surgery. If the dog recovers the ability to walk and is able to control urination and defecation, they may live a normal lifespan.

Dogs that don't recover these abilities are usually humanely euthanized due to quality-of-life concerns. Dogs that cannot feel deep pain in their limbs are more likely to have a poor outcome.

Rhiannon Koehler, DVM


Rhiannon Koehler, DVM


Dr. Rhiannon Koehler is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Master of Public...

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