Medically reviewed by Dr. Irish on 9 Jan 2023
If you’ve ever had back problems, you know how inconvenient and painful the condition is. It’s easy to take for granted how important our backs are until we suddenly can’t move! Dogs, just like humans, can experience issues with their spine that may require surgical intervention.
In this post, we’re going to explain the most common reasons for spinal surgery in dogs including the risks vs benefits of each. We’ll go over several reasons why a dog may need spinal surgery, including the risks and benefits involved, and what to expect from the post recovery period.
If you think your dog may need surgery for back issues, keep reading to find out more.
Most Common Reasons for Spinal Surgery in Dogs
Spinal surgery in dogs may be necessary for a variety of reasons, including to treat conditions such as:
Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD)
Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is a common cause of spinal pain in dogs and can be caused by a herniated disc, degenerative disc disease, or other problems with the intervertebral discs.
The intervertebral disc is made up of a gelatinous inner substance and a fibrous tissue ring. Think of it like a jelly donut. When your dog performs movements like running or jumping, intervertebral discs help to cushion the load on the spine and give it flexibility.
Dogs with intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) may also have a ruptured, slipped, bulging, or herniated disc. Although it can affect any breed of dog, the most common breeds affected are beagles, dachshunds, Pekingese, shih tzus, toy or miniature poodles, chihuahuas, basset hounds, and American cocker spaniels.
Although it primarily affects small breeds, it can also occur in larger breeders including the Labrador retriever, German shepherd, dalmatian, pit bull terrier, and rottweilers.
There are two main types of IVDD: Hansen Type I and Hansen Type II.
Hansen Type I
Hansen Type I disc disease is most commonly seen in small dog breeds and is characterized by rupture of the middle part of the disc known as the nucleus pulposus. This happens when tears appear in the outer part of the disc, known as the annulus fibrosis.
It’s more commonly known as a “slipped disc” caused by abnormal degeneration of the disc. Dogs who develop Hansen Type I IVDD may suddenly be unable to walk because of the pain. According to a publication on Intervertebral Disc Disease, Veterinary Surgery Centers (October 30, 2014), “Approximately 80% of disc herniations occur in the middle part of the back.”
Hansen Type II (Less Common)
Hansen Type II occurs when the outer part of the disc beings to bulge and press on the spinal cord. It typically progresses slowly and may not even be painful for the dog. This type tends to occur in middle-aged or older, large breed dogs.
The resulting compression can damage the spinal cord and nerves, causing spinal atrophy. Although it’s less common, it can occur in any dog breed.
Signs of IVDD in Dogs
The signs of IVDD in dogs can vary depending on the location of the diseased disc and the severity of the problem. Symptoms might come on suddenly or appear gradually over time.
Signs of IVDD in the neck (cervical IVDD) include:
- Neck pain (shaking or trembling can be a sign of pain anywhere in the body)
- Unwillingness to walk (or inability). Tends to affect the gait in all four limbs.
- Difficulty urinating or defecating
- Walking on the tops of the paws (knuckling)
Signs of IVDD in the middle-back (thoracolumbar IVDD) include:
- Shaking or trembling in pain
- Holding the neck low
- Weak and uncoordinated movements in the hind limbs.
- Urinary incontinence
- Possible paralysis or difficulty breathing (surgical emergency)
Signs of IVDD in the lower back (lumbosacral IVDD) can be very much the same as thoracolumbar IVDD with
- Shaking and signs of pain
- Weakness in the hind limbs
- Urinary incontinence
- Paralysis (surgical emergency)
- Loss of bowel control
- Spinal atrophy
Treatment of IVDD in Dogs
Treatment for IVDD may include rest and confinement, pain medication, and in severe cases, surgery to remove the diseased disc or stabilize the vertebral column. In some cases, normal blood flow to the spinal cord can be restored with surgery, which can help to preserve the function of the spinal cord and nerves.
In some cases, intervertebral disc disease can be managed with non-surgical methods such as pain medication, physical therapy, and dietary care. These methods can be effective in relieving pain and improving mobility but may not be enough to fully resolve the issue.
Conservative treatment is often the first line of defense in managing intervertebral disc disease, but it may not be enough in severe cases or cases where there is spinal cord compression. In these instances, surgical intervention is required.
2. Spinal Fracture
Another need for spinal surgery in dogs (besides IVDD) is related to trauma like a car accident or a fall. Trauma can cause a fracture in the vertebrae around the spinal column necessitating surgery.
3. Spinal Tumors
Tumors can form within the spinal cord or on the bones of the vertebrae. It may be necessary to surgically remove these tumors to relieve pain and other symptoms.
4. Degenerative Conditions
Degenerative conditions like arthritis or spondylosis (degeneration of the spine) can cause spinal pain and mobility issues in dogs. In cases like this, surgery may be necessary to improve quality of life.
5. Congenital Abnormalities
Sometimes dogs are born with abnormalities in their spine or spinal cord that require surgical correction
Spinal Surgery in Dogs
Spinal surgery is a complex procedure that is typically only recommended in cases where the disc material is causing significant pain or if there is spinal cord compression. The goal of spinal surgery is to remove the damaged disc material and relieve the pressure on the spinal cord.
There are several different types of spinal surgery that may be used to treat intervertebral disc disease in dogs.
Ventral Slot Technique
One common technique is a ventral slot, which involves making a small incision in the front of the neck to access the cervical vertebrae.
The goal of the surgery is to remove the damaged disc material and relieve the pressure on the spinal cord.
CT scans may be used to guide the surgeon and ensure that the correct disc is being targeted. Pain medication and physical rehabilitation are usually recommended following surgery to help manage pain and promote normal function.
This common spinal surgery is usually performed to manage disc disease in dogs. A hemilaminectomy is performed when the herniated disc is between the shoulder and the hips (thoracolumbar region).
During the procedure, small pieces of bone where the vertebrae connect are removed along with pieces of bone that lie over the spinal cord. This helps to relieve pressure on the spinal cord.
This procedure is like hemilaminectomy except the surgeon performs the surgery from the top of the dog’s spinal canal rather than from the side.
Fenestration is used on dogs that are prone to compressive spinal cord disease or who have had spinal compression in other areas of the spine. Unlike the other types of surgery, fenestration is considered more preventative.
The procedure involves cutting a space over the spinal cord to free up the disc material. That way, instead of compressing it into the spinal cord, the disc material can move away.
Spinal fusion involves joining two or more vertebrae together to stabilize the spine. It’s often done in combination with a discectomy or laminectomy.
Spinal Cord Decompression
Spinal cord decompression involves removing any material that is pressing on the spinal cord, such as a herniated disc or bone spurs.
Spinal stabilization involves using screws, rods, or other devices to stabilize the spine and prevent further movement of the vertebrae. It’s often done in combination with a discectomy or laminectomy.
Risks vs Benefits of Spinal Surgery in Dogs
It’s always important to speak to a veterinarian about the risks vs benefits of any surgery. The two biggest things that will determine whether your dog is a candidate for surgery are underlying health conditions and age. Each of the surgery techniques noted above have very similar risks versus benefits including:
Risks of spinal surgery in dogs
- complications of anesthesia
- nerve damage
- failure of metal hardware (if used) used to stabilize the spine
Benefits of spinal surgery in dogs
- Relief of symptoms
- Improvement in mobility
- Preservation of spinal cord function
- Better quality of life
Success Rate of Spinal Surgery in Dogs
The success rate for spinal surgery in dogs is generally high, with most dogs experiencing significant improvement in their mobility and pain levels following the procedure.
However, as with any surgery, there are risks involved and the specific outcome will depend on the individual dog and the severity of their condition.
The Recovery Process of Spinal Surgery
Undergoing spinal surgery can be a significant and potentially stressful experience for dogs. The recovery process following surgery will depend on the specific procedure that was performed and the individual dog.
That said, here are some things that can happen after surgery:
Following spinal surgery, it’s important for dogs to restrict their physical activity to allow time to heal. This may involve strict crate rest or limited leash walks to go outside to relieve themselves.
The exact exercise restrictions will depend on the specific surgery that was performed and the advice of the veterinary neurologist.
In the early stages of recovery, it’s common for dogs to have difficulty walking or to experience weakness in their hind limbs. This is due to the surgical incision and the effects of the anesthesia. It’s important to follow the exercise restrictions and not allow the dog to overdo it as this can prolong the recovery process.
It’s not uncommon for dogs to experience urinary incontinence following spinal surgery. This can be due to the surgical incision or the effects of the anesthesia. In many cases, this is temporary and will resolve within a few weeks, but in some cases, it may persist for longer or be a permanent issue.
The recovery period following spinal surgery will vary depending on the individual dog and the specific surgery that was performed.
Physical rehabilitation is an important part of the recovery process following spinal surgery in dogs. This may include exercises to improve strength and mobility in the hind limbs, as well as pain management techniques.
Dietary care may also play a role in the recovery process, as maintaining a healthy weight can help to reduce the strain on the spine.
Dogs who have undergone surgery for intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) will be prescribed pain medications to help manage pain and discomfort during the recovery process. Some common pain medications that may be prescribed for dogs include:
- Opioid pain medications
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Intervertebral disc disease is a common issue in dogs that can cause significant pain and mobility issues. While non-surgical treatment options may be effective in some cases, spinal surgery may be necessary in severe cases or when there is spinal cord compression.
The success rate for spinal surgery in dogs is generally high, but it’s important to follow the treatment plan recommended by the neurosurgeon or veterinary neurologist to ensure the best possible outcome.
“Hemilaminectomy or Dorsal Laminectomy.” Southwest Veterinary Surgical Service, swvetsurgery.com/services/neurologic-surgery/hemilaminectomy-or-dorsal-laminectomy. Accessed 9 Jan. 2023.
“IVDD Surgery for Dogs | Memphis Veterinary Specialists and Emergency in Cordova.” IVDD Surgery for Dogs | Memphis Veterinary Specialists & Emergency in Cordova, www.memphisveterinaryspecialists.com/site/blog-cordova/2020/08/27/ivdd-surgery-for-dogs-treatment-options. Accessed 9 Jan. 2023.
“Symptoms of Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) in Dogs and Available Treatments | Matthews Emergency Vet | Carolina Veterinary Specialists.” Symptoms of Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) in Dogs & Available Treatments | Matthews Emergency Vet | Carolina Veterinary Specialists, www.matthews.carolinavet.com/site/pet-health-blog/2020/08/14/ivdd-intervertebral-disc-disease-in-dogs. Accessed 9 Jan. 2023.
“Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD).” Veterinary Surgical Centers, 30 Oct. 2014, www.vscvets.com/surgery/neurology-conditions/intervertebral-disc-disease-ivdd