Spondylosis in Dogs

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

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Spondylosis is a disease of the spine found typically in older dogs that causes new bone growth along the vertebrae. While the severity of spondylosis can vary from dog to dog, like arthritis, the disease will progress over time. 

What Is Spondylosis?

Spondylosis (sometimes referred to as spondylosis deformans) is a disease of the spine where bone spurs (osteophytes) develop around the edges of the vertebrae. A normal spine will have individual “blocks” of vertebrae with the space in-between composed of the intervertebral disc. With spondylosis, bone spurs on the ends of the vertebrae are visible and, in more severe cases, the new bone growth can form a bridge above and below fusing or linking the vertebrae. 

The spine is divided into three regions in a dog:

  • Cervical: The cervical region provides support to your dog’s shoulders and neck.
  • Thoracic: The thoracic region supports the chest and abdominal areas.
  • Lumbar: The lumbar region supports your dog's lower back and hind end.

The most common places for spondylosis to form are in the thoracic and lumbar areas.

Symptoms of Spondylosis in Dogs

Since the disease does affect older dogs the most, you should be diligent in reporting any changes in your dog’s mobility, posture, or gait to your veterinarian. Here are common symptoms of spondylosis.

Symptoms

  • Incontinence
  • Difficulty rising or walking
  • Limping or lameness
  • Dragging hind legs
  • Arched posture


Incontinence

Occasionally with spondylosis, there can be neurologic impairment if a nerve is involved. For instance, some pets with spinal trauma may have issues with incontinence. This can be a result of interrupted communication on the spinal cord due to the impingement of bone spurs. If your pet begins having accidents suddenly in the house, or your dog has soiled areas on their bedding, make sure you schedule a visit with the vet. It is always important to have your veterinarian examine your dog to rule out a medical reason before assuming it is related to behavior. 

Difficulty Rising or Walking

In severe cases, certain regions of the spine may cause restricted movement in a dog due to the amount and location of bone spurs. In this case, the dog's spine may appear to be stiff and inflexible, making it tough to rise or walk.

Limping or Lameness

While any pain in a pet is extremely important to note and investigate, back pain is often dwarfed by the obvious signs of limping or lameness. The restricted movement from spurs may cause the dog to limp or become lame.

Dragging Hind Legs

A dog with severe spondylosis will try to alleviate any pain by knuckling, or dragging its hind legs when trying to walk.

Arched Posture

A dog will arch its back and walk or stand that way if it has spondylosis. Arching the back reduces pressure on the spine and lessens pain.

Causes of Spondylosis

Spondylosis is a chronic age-related condition. As with all bones, the spine can weaken as a pet ages. To compensate for any structural loss from daily wear and tear, or traumatic injury, the body creates these bone spurs in an attempt to recreate stability along the spinal column to protect the spinal cord. There are three categories of dogs that may be at a greater risk of developing spondylosis:

  • Dogs that suffer from an existing spine or disc disease, such as intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)
  • Middle- to senior-aged dogs
  • Boxers may have a higher risk

Diagnosing Spondylosis in Dogs

To diagnose this condition the spinal structure must be examined with an X-ray or MRI. Most often spondylosis is diagnosed incidentally when an X-ray is taken of a pet for an unrelated reason. While evaluating the entire radiograph, a veterinarian would be able to see abnormal bone growth surrounding the spine. Afflicted animals will generally show evidence of spondylosis on X-rays by the time they reach 10 years of age.

Treatment

Thankfully, the majority of dogs show no signs of pain or discomfort with the disease, and medication is usually not indicated for spondylosis alone. However, if your dog is in pain, your vet may recommend the following:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs)
  • Food supplements such as glucosamine, methylsulphonylmethane (MSM), chondroitin sulfate
  • Surgery, in rare cases, if a bony growth causes nerve compression

Prognosis for Dogs With Spondylosis

The prognosis for a dog with spondylosis, even if it is severe, is good. Many dogs have spondylosis but never exhibit any symptoms and live a normal life or they are a bit stiff and limited in flexibility and range of motion.

How to Prevent Spondylosis 

While there is nothing that can be done to prevent spondylosis in particular, keeping an older pet active and fit can help with a variety of age-related changes. There is research being conducted on how to prevent spondylosis from developing, particularly in boxers. Here are tips you can take now to help keep your dog healthy:

  • Treats: One of the easiest preventive measures tends to be the hardest. Keep your pet at a healthy weight. While it is hard to resist the classic puppy dog eyes, try giving healthier treats or alternative treats such as baby carrots, apple slices, or even pieces of your dog’s kibble. 
  • Diet: Good nutrition is important no matter the life stage, however, as dogs age they can have different nutrition and caloric requirements. Quality nutrition and a healthy weight go hand in hand for all animals so, before your dog’s next vet visit, make sure to take a picture of the front and back of your dog’s food bag. This way your veterinarian can calculate how much volume your pet should be eating in a day.
  • Exercise: Continue to encourage your older dog to go out for regular walks. This is extremely helpful not just for weight loss but for keeping your pup’s senses spry. Just like in people, ideal body weight will help to reduce the strain on joints and bones, keeping a dog comfortable into its senior years. 
Article Sources
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  2. Spondylosis and Spinal Abnormalities: When Are They Relevant? FECAVA/BSAVA World Congress 2012.

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