Common spinal injuries in dogs

What are the most common spinal injuries in dogs?

Two of the most common spinal injuries in dogs are fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE) and acute non-progressive nucleus pulposus extrusion. Both conditions cause temporary paralysis and weakness, particularly in the hind legs. The disorders are mainly seen in large breed dogs but can occur in miniature schnauzers and shelties. Both disorders are treated through physical therapy.

Fibrocartilaginous embolism occurs when a blood vessel that feeds the spinal cord becomes blocked by a piece of cartilage that originates from the intervertebral disc. Similar to a stroke, this results in a lack of blood flow to the spinal cord, causing it to malfunction. 

During an acute non-progressive nucleus pulposus extrusion, a portion of healthy intervertebral disc suddenly collides with the spinal cord at a high velocity, causing bruising and sometimes bleeding within the spinal cord.

What are the symptoms of spinal conditions fibrocartilaginous embolism and nucleus pulposus extrusion in dogs?

Dogs with these spinal injuries often have been exercising, playing, or have had some mild trauma such as a fall. They may initially yelp and cry out in pain when the incident occurs but show no signs of pain afterward. The onset of signs is sudden, and many are not able to walk immediately after the incident. In some cases, only one hind leg may be affected, or one hind leg may appear worse than the other. 

How are spinal injuries diagnosed in dogs?

Since many spinal cord diseases and intervertebral disc disease may show similar signs, a thorough examination by a neurologist and advanced diagnostics such as an MRI and spinal tap are often needed to distinguish between conditions. Treatment for spinal cord disorders varies depending on the cause and the severity so it is important to determine the underlying cause of the neurologic symptoms.

How are spinal disorders fibrocartilaginous embolism and nucleus pulposus extrusion treated in dogs?

Physical rehabilitation is the primary treatment for both conditions, and it is proven to improve the chances of a full and timely recovery. Since the main cause of the neurologic dysfunction is due to lack of blood flow, surgery does not improve the condition. Additionally, no medications have been shown to improve or speed recovery.  Most dogs with a fibrocartilaginous embolism will show improvement within a few days of the incident and most regain the ability to walk within two weeks. Rarely, severely affected patients may not recover, but the vast majority do well given time.

What should I do if my dog is showing signs of a spinal injury?

If your dog is experiencing what appears to be a spinal injury or a similar painful condition call your veterinary clinic or schedule an appointment with one of our small animal veterinarians at the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital by calling 509-335-0711.

This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian. Washington State University assumes no liability for injury to you or your pet incurred by following these descriptions or procedures.