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Cauda Equina Syndrome in Dogs – 5 Signs You Don’t Want to Miss

Dr. Paula Simons

Reviewed by: Paula Simons, DVM

Cauda equina syndrome is a slow-progressing disease that causes severe back pain in dogs. Degenerative changes in the vertebrae cause severe compression of the spinal nerve roots.

This compression of nerve roots creates severe and painful inflammation that prevents your dog from raising his/her tail. Dogs with this condition will develop weakness in the rear legs.

The full extent of this condition and how it affects a dog’s quality of life are described fully in this post. You’ll get an overview of the disease, the dogs who are at risk, and what can be done to treat the condition.

Is Your Dog Showing Signs of Pain?

Have you noticed your dog in any kind of pain recently? Dogs have a way of hiding pain from us. It might not be as easy as you think to detect it.

Signs of pain in dogs include:

  • Hesitancy to go for his/her normal walk
  • Tail tucked between the legs (also a sign of anxiety in dogs)
  • Obsessively licking certain parts of the body where the pain is located.
  • Barking, whining, or howling
  • Keeping their heads down
  • Poor appetite
  • Unusual aggression

Other signs of pain are more obvious. These include:

  • Difficulty getting up stairs or rising
  • Refusing to jump
  • Limping
  • Yelping or pulling away when touched

If you suspect your dog is in pain, or your veterinarian has suggested he/she could be suffering from cauda equina syndrome, please keep reading.

What is Cauda Equina Syndrome?

Cauda equina syndrome is a slow-progressing disease that results in severe low back pain. The condition results in the compression or total destruction of the nerve roots at the base of the spinal cord. Inflammation limits space within the spine (spinal stenosis) and puts pressure on the nerves.

Causes of the disease are sometimes the result of:

  • Congenital malformation
  • Fractures
  • Traumatic injury
  • Dislocation
  • Herniated discs.

Herniated discs occur more often in dogs who have had hip dysplasia or patella luxation.

Other causes could include tumors in bones or even bone formations in the vertebrae. Bone formations are more common in older dogs.

Cauda equina syndrome also causes a deformity in the disc between your dog’s vertebrae and sacrum.

This will add to the compression of the spinal nerves, increasing pain and walking difficulty in the dog. When the spinal nerves become completely compressed, your dog will be unable to control his bladder or use his hind limbs.

The pain and urinary incontinence the condition causes are incredibly pronounced, and many dogs tend to spiral into other diseases as a result of it.

There are generally two types of cauda equina syndrome.

●    Congenital cauda equina syndrome occurs as a result of a birth defect.

●    Acquired cauda equina syndrome occurs due to external factors – injuries, infections, etc.

Spinal compression causes severe pain

Common Causes of Cauda Equina Syndrome in Dogs

Given that dogs come in different types and breeds, quite a lot of factors can cause cauda equina syndrome. Some of these factors include:

Large Breed Dogs

Generally, dogs with larger bodies tend to be the most susceptible to cauda equina syndrome. These dogs have longer spinal cords and are at a higher risk level than the other breeds.

Birth Complications

In some dogs, birth defects could cause abnormal connections in the blood vessels.


Severe arthritis can cause degeneration in the spinal column. Mild cases of arthritis are usually treated with anti-inflammatory medications.


A dog’s spinal cord space can become infected by several sources. If this happens, the dog automatically becomes at high risk of acquiring cauda equina syndrome.

Excess Weight

Obesity in dogs puts more pressure on the spine. A veterinarian may suggest weight reduction as one form of non-surgical treatment.


Traumatic Injuries can cause ruptures in the disc found around the lumbar spine.

In some cases, injuries lead to fractures and hemorrhages in the spine. If these issues aren’t properly treated, your dog could be at a higher risk of cauda equina syndrome.

Spinal Tumor

Like it is in humans, tumors also affect dogs. Some of these tumors eventually find their home in the spinal cord, and cauda equina syndrome is simply one of the side effects that the tumors’ presence shows.

Intervertebral Disc Herniation

A herniated disc is one of the most common factors that cause cauda equina syndrome. Dogs are highly prone to herniated discs, and a progression of this could easily cause cauda equina syndrome.

How to Help Your Dog from Home

If your dog is in pain, he/she is not going to want to have to travel up and down the stairs to go outside. Just stepping over the doorstep might be too much. Since this disease tends to happen to large breeds it’s not likely that you’re going to be able to hoist him up to take him/her outside.

Doggie Lawn

This is the best invention since sliced bread and it’s being used by millions of dog owners. It’s a subscription-based service (you can cancel at any time) that sends hydroponically grown grass to your house.

It sounds messy but it isn’t. There’s no dirt involved. You get a perfect square (you get to choose the size) that fits into a neat frame. The best thing is that you can put it pretty much anywhere in the house and it won’t look ugly.

People have been setting these on the porch, a closet, on the balcony, in the hallway, foyer, and even in the living room.

It doesn’t have to be a permanent solution, but it could be helpful.

Check Out Doggie Lawn

Help your dog get through post-surgical procedures and injuries with a Doggie Lawn.

Are There Dog Breeds at Higher Risks of Cauda Equina Syndrome?

Large breed dogs are more prone to cauda equina syndrome. Breeds like German Shepherds, Great Danes, Dachshunds, and Beagles are most susceptible to the condition.

Can Cauda Equina Syndrome in Dogs be Prevented?

Cauda equina syndrome occurs due to conditions that can’t be predicted. The best thing you can do is take your dog to a licensed veterinarian for regular wellness checks. Keep your dog on a healthy diet and watch for signs of change as your dog ages. Remember that this type of condition tends to come on slowly.

You know your dog better than anybody. Trust your instincts if something doesn’t seem quite right. It’s much better to see a veterinarian too early rather than too late.

cauda equina syndrome causes severe pain

Diagnosis of Cauda Equina Syndrome in Dogs

Diagnosing cauda equina syndrome can be difficult because its symptoms look a lot like those of several other conditions.

Even after conducting a thorough medical examination, most vets will only be able to give a possible cause. Most times, physical examinations only find that your dog has pain in the lower back region – including its spine, tail, and hind limbs. 

Neurologic and Physical Examination

Here, the vet observes the dog’s posture for any stiffness or difficulty in walking. The vet could also conduct a physical examination to find palpation in the spine and determine the area where the dog feels the most pain.

Other physical examination steps include:

●    Manipulation of the tail and hips to find the primary source of pain

●    Testing for reflexes, anal tones, and foot placement

Radiograph, CT Scan, and MRI

Radiographs will primarily focus on finding any abnormal shapes around the lumbosacral joint. They can also help to discover tumors, infections in the disc space, and more. With an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), the vet can find and examine spinal nerves and their roots.

After the physical examination, the veterinarian may suggest a radiograph, CT scan, and an epidurogram. A diagnostic epidurogram assesses the spinal cord structure through the injection of contrast material (dye) into the lumbosacral area. From there, the veterinarian can determine where the pain is coming from because the dye will outline the compression of nerve roots.

Only through a combination of the above diagnostic tools can a veterinarian reach a definitive diagnosis.

5 Symptoms You Should Keep an Eye Out For

Cauda equina has symptoms and signs that resemble those of several lumbosacral diseases which makes diagnosis difficult. Keep an eye out for the following symptoms. You may even notice vague signs that don’t quite meet the description here. Remember to bring your dog to a veterinarian if you suspect there is something wrong.

Clinical signs of degenerative lumbosacral stenosis include:


The narrowing of the vertebral canal can cause bilateral pelvic limb lameness. As a result of the lumbosacral instability, your dog may not be able to walk properly.

Difficulty Standing

There are many causes for a dog having difficulty standing. Back leg weakness may only be a slight limp that works itself out quickly. This could be caused by stiff legs after a lot of exercises and is common in senior dogs.

However, if your dog has serious trouble standing up on his/her own, it should be cause for concern.

Unable to Climb Stairs

The inability to climb stairs can be caused by any type of chronic pain.

Dragging Hind Limbs and Paws

This is a serious sign that there has been a loss of communication between the brain and the nervous system. This is a veterinary emergency.

Postural Changes

Postural change can be the result of spinal deformity caused by this degenerative disease. Pain will also cause your dog to hold himself in odd positions.

Fecal and/or Bladder Incontinence

This can be another serious sign that the brain is not communicating properly with the rest of the body.

Treatment Options for Cauda Equina Syndrome

Non-Surgical Procedures

When the case is mild, non-surgical procedures tend to get the job done well enough. Here, the dog is placed on a strict regime of corticosteroids or NSAIDs. These should help with the pain and inflammation and reduce any impacts on the dog.

A cortisone injection can help to fast-track relief. Vets will also suggest that the dog be put on strict rest for a month or two. But, while the dog rests, mild physical therapy should be administered. This includes daily muscle massages and exercises, which will help strengthen the dog and nurse it back to health.

Surgical Treatment

If the case is advanced enough, vets will suggest surgical intervention.

Several procedures could help to treat cauda equina syndrome. The most common is dorsal laminectomy which involves removing the degenerated spinal cord disc.

Surgeons will make an incision at the top of the spinal cord, thus removing the bone as well as other materials that are causing the spinal nerve compression.

Vets could also use a surgical procedure known as the fusion method, which helps to strengthen the spinal cord and reduce spinal nerve compression.

Generally, the treatment for cauda equina syndrome will depend on the degree of the symptoms. Dogs with mild pain and no history of previous backache tend to do fine with just pain medications and rest.

However, when the dog doesn’t respond to conservative therapy, it’s time to consider surgical treatment. This should always be performed by a veterinary neurologist or surgeon.

Can Cauda Equina Syndrome be Cured?

This condition is treatable, but not curable. Mild cases can usually be handled with non-surgical, medical treatment, but advanced cases will need surgical treatment to prevent further spinal cord deterioration.

While cauda equina syndrome is a serious condition, your dog should be back to good health with proper treatment. The combination of drugs and/or surgical treatment and proper, strict rest will ensure that your dog can live a happy, prolonged life.

What is the Post-Operational Prognosis for Cauda Equina Syndrome?

The prognosis for cauda equina syndrome is pretty good, especially in dogs with mild neurologic signs. Dogs with severe cases of root compression and urinary incontinence tend to have a poor prognosis.

Surgical treatment can alleviate their pain, but many of these dogs don’t become continent again. 

Most dogs with chronic vertebral disc diseases and other physical conditions tend to become better after surgery.

Regardless of the condition, your dog must get enough cage rest. This will help to prevent the development of post-surgery conditions, which could easily prolong the recovery even more.


Cauda equina syndrome can be a challenging thing to deal with, especially as a dog owner. No one wants to see their best friend in so much pain and be unable to do anything about it.

Therefore, you need to keep an eye out for some of the symptoms that we’ve outlined. Also, reduce the chances that your dog gets an injury or some other life-threatening condition.


VCA Hospital


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