Spinal Health Problems in Large Breed Dogs

While back problems are more common in small breeds with long backs, such as Dachshunds and Corgis, spinal problems can certainly also crop up in large breeds.

The spinal cord is responsible for transporting information from the brain to the rest of the body and there are several different types of spinal problems found in dogs.

All spinal cord problems have similar symptoms. We’ll go over the symptoms first and then get into each type of large dog spinal health issue.

Symptoms of Spinal Problems

The symptoms of spinal problems include:

  • The Inability to move naturally
    • Having a hard time lying down or getting up
    • Unwillingness to move or jump
    • Limping
  • Neurological problems
    • Loss of balance and coordination
    • Loss of muscle mass
    • Muscle spasms over the dog’s back & neck
    • Complete muscle atrophy
  • Signs of pain
    • Pain or stiffness in the back
    • Pain or stiffness in the neck
  • Other symptoms
    • Sensitive to movement
    • Sensitive to noises
    • Reduced activity level
    • Decreased appetite
    • Rapid breathing and shivering

If you see these symptoms or a combination of these symptoms, you must contact your veterinarian right away and get your dog in to be seen. Spinal problems can be serious, but can also often be treated.

Types of Spinal Problems in Large Breed Dogs

The seven main types of spinal problems in large-breed dogs have different causes and different basic treatments.

Trauma or Injury

Spinal cord injury is common in dogs. About 2 out of 100 vet visits are for some type of spinal cord injury.

If your dog has a spinal cord injury it can have serious consequences. The more severe the injury, the more likely you are to see complete paralysis in the dog. However, if the injury is partial then the possibility of recovery is much higher because the nerves that are left can take over for the injured nerves.

Prevention: It’s not possible to prevent every injury to a dog, but you can keep them away from cars and traffic – which is one of the main ways that dogs get injured.

When to go to the vet: If you notice that your dog is favoring a leg or shows any other signs of spinal problems (listed above), take your dog to the vet immediately.

Inflammatory or Infectious Diseases

Dogs can get inflammatory or infectious spinal diseases that include the following causes:

  • Viral
  • Protozoal
  • Bacterial
  • Fungal
  • Parasitic infections
  • Unknown reasons that cause inflammation

Canine distemper, rickettsial disease, verminous myelitis, and rabies can all be causes of inflammatory or infectious diseases. These types of diseases typically affect a dog’s brain.

Prevention: To prevent these spinal diseases, keep your dog away from infected animals and make sure they have plenty of clean, fresh water.

When you are choosing a pet bowl, pick one that is less likely to get infected. Stainless steel is a good choice for this.
Keeping your dog fully vaccinated can also prevent canine distemper and rabies.

When to go to the vet: Many of these diseases can be treated with antibiotics or antifungal medicines. If your dog has any symptoms of spinal problems or is foaming at the mouth make sure to take them to the vet immediately.

Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy (DM) is a disease that causes the slow and progressive degeneration of the white matter in the spinal cord. This is similar to Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) in humans.

This is a hard disease to diagnose in the early stages because it resembles arthritis and often occurs in conjunction with hip dysplasia.

As DM progresses, symptoms progress to wobbling and stumbling and then it becomes easier to diagnose.

This is a disease that is believed to be caused by a genetic mutation called SOD-1. The large breed dogs that are at risk for this disease include:

  • German Shepherds
  • German Shepherd crosses
  • Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
  • Siberian Huskies
  • Kerry Blue Terriers
  • Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers
  • Rhodesian Ridgebacks
  • Standard Poodles

Prevention: The only way to prevent degenerative myelopathy is to make sure your dog doesn’t have a genetic predisposition to it. Not all dogs who carry two SOD-1 genes will get DM, but they are the only dogs who can get the disease.

If you are considering a purebred dog that is in the above list you should know if either of the parents carries the SOD-1 gene to gauge your risk. Only dogs that carry two copies of the gene will develop DM.

When to go to the vet: If your dog has DM it will display arthritis symptoms at first. If you believe your dog might have DM your vet can order a genetic test to see if they carry the genes for this disease. Unfortunately, at this time there aren’t many treatments. But physical therapy and exercise can both help keep your dog on its feet longer.

Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD)

This is a spinal disorder that occurs in dogs when there is a disc herniation.

There are two types of IVDD: Hansen Type 1 and Hansen Type 2. Hansen Type 2 is the type normally found in large-breed dogs.

With Type 2 the discs harden over time. That can lead to rupturing or bulging and cause spinal cord compression. This is a slow-onset disease and won’t have a particular starting point.

All types of IVDD can cause a dog difficulty walking, the inability to urinate, pain, and paralysis.

Prevention: In large dogs, IVDD is largely a genetic disorder. Dobermans, German Shepherds, and Labrador Retrievers are at the highest risk. To reduce the risk of your dog getting IVDD, check their family history to make sure their parents are free of the disease.

When to take your dog to the vet: If your dog starts knuckling on their paws, shows an unwillingness to walk, or has pain in its neck or back you should take them to the vet immediately. If caught early, dogs with IVDD can be treated with medication and rest. Over time, the disease will usually progress to the point where the dog needs surgery.

Lumbosacral Stenosis

This is a spinal disease that affects the lower back of dogs. It compresses the nerve roots in the spine.

This spinal disease almost always occurs in larger dogs, with German Shepherds, Rottweilers, and Boxers being at the highest levers of risk. Older dogs are also more likely to get this disease.

Lumbosacral stenosis is a disease that’s hard to diagnose. That’s because its symptoms are similar to arthritis and other aging diseases that may affect your dog.

Prevention: Keeping your dog at a healthy weight and making sure they get plenty of exercise will help prevent Lumbosacral Stenosis.

When to take your dog to the vet: If your dog has spinal symptoms like those listed above, you should take them to your vet. Lumbosacral Stenosis is a highly treatable disease. There are medication options as well as surgical options.

Spondylosis

This is another spinal condition that primarily occurs in large dogs. It almost always occurs in senior dogs and it is caused by bone spurs forming on the disks and fusing the spine.

This causes your dog to have limited flexibility.

Prevention: There are no ways to prevent spondylosis at the current time. It is a common condition in older dogs.

When to Take Your Dog to the Vet: As dogs age, they need more regular veterinary care. If your dog is exhibiting symptoms of stiffness in the back a vet can help by giving it medicine to ease the pain. This is a mostly symptomless condition that is common during the aging process.

Tumors

It’s unusual for dogs to get spinal tumors, but when they do they occur almost exclusively in large-breed dogs. Most spinal tumors are slow growing.

Prevention: Feeding your dog a high-quality healthy diet and making sure they get enough exercise can help to prevent spinal tumors.

When to take your dog to the vet: If you notice a growth on the dog’s spine or if you notice any of the symptoms listed at the beginning of this article you should take your dog to the vet.

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