Spinal Stenosis in Dogs – Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

dog wheelchairHumans are not the only animals to suffer from spinal stenosis, dogs and other vertebrates can also develop this condition. Admittedly, the horizontal spine structure in dogs, and their lower life expectancy, does tend to protect them somewhat from spinal disc degeneration but certain breeds are more susceptible than others. Just as in humans, spinal stenosis in dogs can cause back pain, nerve damage, and even paralysis but there are ways to reduce your dog’s risk and to help relieve symptoms in those who already have the condition.

Dogs with spinal stenosis often have a slow onset of symptoms as cartilage degenerates over time and calcifies, causing restricted spinal mobility and pain. A variety of things can cause canine spinal stenosis, including spinal trauma, congenital bone abnormalities or connective tissue disorder, inflammation, and even side effects of medications, or infections of the spine.

Symptoms of Spinal Stenosis in Dogs

Symptoms of spinal stenosis in dogs can include changes in bowel and bladder function, leading to incontinence, as well as poor mobility, increased fatigue and reluctance to go on walks, hikes, or to play as before, and obvious pain and discomfort, especially when touched on the hind legs, back or tail. The most common symptom of lumbosacral stenosis in dogs is difficult standing after lying down, which can worsen as the muscles in the hind legs atrophy through reduced nerve stimulation and use.

Dogs with cauda equina syndrome may have such severe pain that this causes them to urinate or defecate involuntarily. Some dogs develop severe pain in their tail and may stop wagging their tail as before. Dogs may also develop a shuffling walk, scuffing their toes and perhaps tripping. When pain is chronic it may lead a dog to chew at their back legs, tail, and/or pelvic region. Some dogs cause themselves serious damage to the skin and fur in these areas through obsessive chewing due to pain.

Dogs at Risk of Spinal Stenosis

Some breeds of dog, such as German Shepherds and other large breeds, and the dachshund and beagle are more likely to develop degnerative disc disease than other breeds. This is thought to be due in the latter two cases to the relatively lower levels of substances called glycosaminoglycans in these animals, compared to dogs like greyhounds. Such breeds are called hypochondroplastic breeds as they have reduced chondrocyte function, meaning that they are less able to synthesis glycosaminoglycans like chondroitin sulphate (Verheijena & Bouwa, 1982). This reduced production of chondroitin, which makes up around two thirds of the body’s glycosaminoglycans, means that the discs in the spine are less hydrated and, therefore, less well nourished and oxygenated and have a reduced capacity to absorb shocks.

Glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) make up a significant proportion of the jelly-like material in the spinal discs (the nucleus pulposus) and a reduction in GAGs can lead to disc shrinkage and spinal stenosis in dogs. This may put pressure on spinal nerves or even the spinal cord itself.


In German Shepherds there can be considerable difficulty in discerning the development of lumbosacral stenosis from canine hip dysplasia, which would warrant different treatment than for spinal stenosis. Symptoms of lumbosacral stenosis in dogs typically occur between the ages of 3 and 7, but congenital defects, trauma, or other illness can cause early onset of symptoms.

Diagnosing Canine Lumbosacral Stenosis

Diagnosing spinal stenosis in a dog requires physical assessment where the dog’s limbs are moved in certain ways and their reflexes are checked as part of a neurological examination. A medical history will be taken to determine the likelihood of a differential diagnosis or precipitating factors for lumbosacral stenosis in a dog. X-rays are often taken to assess the spine and pelvis and while such scans can show narrowing of the spinal column this is not always enough to diagnose symptomatic spinal stenosis as some narrowing is common but may not cause symptoms.

Dogs may undergo a myelograph, epidurograph, or discograph, where radioactive material is injected into the spinal column, epidural space or disc space before x-ray in order to determine any abnormalities in the anatomy as shown by the displacement of the radioactive dye.

Treating Spinal Stenosis in Dogs

Once a diagnosis is made there are various treatment options for dogs. Typically, the course of treatment for spinal stenosis will depend on the severity of the condition, its likely progression, the dog’s age, activity levels and overall health, and, unfortunately, whether the dog’s guardian has insurance or other means to cover the cost of more expensive treatments.

Dogs with mild stenosis and symptoms may respond well to rest for around two months, alongside treatment with prednisolone or other anti-inflammatory mredication. Resumption of activity after this time may simply lead to the return of symptoms however. Ongoing treatment with steroids is not always recommended due to their potential for adverse effects.

Dogs may be deemed good candidates for surgery for lumbosacral stenosis if a clear anatomical abnormality is detected, such as osteophyte growth, a herniated disc, or a calcified ligament. The dog may undergo spinal fusion following decompression and after this the dog will need to be confined for two to four weeks in order to allow the bones to fuse. Nerve damage or inflammation may mean that a dog is unable to urinate, requiring the bladder to be manually expressed several times a day. Dogs having spinal stenosis surgery are often given prednisolone therapy, although this may adversely affect the fusion of new bone to old.

Dogs with severe symptoms prior to surgery are less likely to return to normal activities after treatment, especially if incontinence was an issue before the dog was treated. Milder cases can see dogs resume normal function and enjoy an improved quality of life.

Some dogs also do well with the use of a type of close-fitting jacket that acts as a dog back brace to keep the vertebrae in line and to minimise pain and discomfort. While others find it beneficial to use a specialised lead with attached harness to help hold up a dog rehabilitating from surgery, or with older dogs who have difficulties walking. Dogs with severe joint problems may need to use a wheelchair to support their back legs and allow them to continue enjoying quality of life with plenty of time outdoors. To improve comfort and rest, orthopedic dog beds are available that use memory foam to help support the spine.

Joint Care Supplements for Dogs

As with humans, a range of natural health supplements can help with joint care, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, as well as methylsulfonylmethane (MSM). These help to reduce inflammation by inhibiting the synthesisi of pro-inflammatory cytokines such as interleukin-1beta and tumor necrosis factor-alpha. They can also influence the behaviour of enzymes with proteolytic (protein digesting) activity such as matrix metalloproteinases, and enzymes with pro-inflammatory activity such as cyclooxygenase-2 and nitric oxide synthase-2.

Glycosaminoglycans like chondroitin can also help to restore hydration to brittle spinal discs, aiding recovery and repair and reducing the risk of disc herniation or shrinkage leading to spinal narrowing. These substances may also help with pain and improve a dog’s quality of life without surgical intervention.

Care should be taken with the use of joint supplements in dogs as overdoses have been reported. Typically, however, glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM are well tolerated in dogs and can help reduce symptoms of osteoarthritis and other disorders causing joint discomfort. Specially designed joint care supplements for dogs should be used as natural health products for humans may contain substances toxic to dogs, including certain preservatives that are fine in humans but cause toxicity in dogs.

It is essential that dogs who are experiencing apparent joint pain are assessed by a trained veterinarian, especially if the dog is also incontinent or has altered behaviour. Early assessment and treatment offers dogs with spinal stenosis the best chance of living a happy, healthy and long life.

3 replies
  1. Ian William Polnick
    Ian William Polnick says:

    Dear Sir,
    I have a pure breed yellow labrador retriever that is only four and one half years old. is it possible at this age to have spinal stenosis ?
    What happens is he will go running and than all of a sudden go onto his side and cry in pain. Is there something I should be doing or giving him?
    Will you please contact me at the above email. Thank-you for your time.

    Ian William Polnick

    Reply
  2. Gail Tansey
    Gail Tansey says:

    My 12 year old Lurcher as stenosis in his spine with a bulging disc on the lower end of his spine on the right. His hind legs are not good and he has no reflex in either back feet. Although both legs aren’t good the left one is worse and the muscle wastage is really bad in the left leg.
    Would you expect the worse side to be where the problem disc is or would it possible for it to effect the opposite side.
    I hope this makes sense, appreciate any thoughts . Thanks regards Gail

    Reply

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