Spinal Trauma in Dogs

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Overview of Canine Spinal Trauma

Trauma to the spinal cord is not common and can be very devastating. In dogs, spinal trauma is most often associated with sudden impact injury, such as being hit by an automobile, gunshot or falling from a height. In addition to trauma to the spine, the dog typically sustains injuries elsewhere on the body.

Four primary injuries can occur to the spine. These include laceration of the cord, compression of the spine by a ruptured disk or blood clot, concussion of the spine associated with vertebral fracture or disk herniation, and lack of blood flow associated with blood clots or emboli. These can occur independently or at the same time.

In addition to the different injuries that can occur, hemorrhage or bleeding within the cord is also common. This bleeding can progress and worsen the injury. In addition, an injured spinal cord can also accumulate certain chemicals, which can worsen the spinal damage.

Initially, the severity of the spinal trauma must be assessed in order to provide appropriate therapy. A complete neurologic exam is performed to determine the location of the injury. Therapy can be medical, surgical or a combination of both.

Prognosis depends upon the type and severity of trauma, and the neurologic deficits. In general, animals that have lost feeling and pain sensation associated with the spinal damage have a poor prognosis for recovery.

What to Watch For

Signs of spinal trauma in dogs may include: 

  • Pain
  • Lethargy
  • Abnormal walking
  • Lameness
  • Inability to walk
  • Abnormal appearance of the spine
  • Diagnosis of Spinal Trauma in Dogs

    A history of recent injury is important in diagnosing spinal trauma. In addition, your veterinarian will perform a thorough examination to determine the extent of the injury and to determine if there are other injuries present.

  • Your veterinarian will take X-rays of the spinal column to detect fractures or luxations.
  • A myelogram may be performed to determine if significant spinal cord swelling has occurred. A myelogram is a specialized test that involves injecting dye into the spinal canal and taking X-rays. Animals are often sedated for this test.
  • A CT scan or MRI may also be performed to determine the severity of spinal cord injury.
  • Treatment of Spinal Trauma in Dogs

    Dogs with suspected spinal trauma should be immobilized immediately. The animal should be taped to a board while lying on his side to prevent further injury. Tranquilizers, sedatives and painkillers are not given until the animal can be evaluated since giving these drugs will make it nearly impossible to determine the severity of the injury and will make decisions regarding appropriate treatment difficult.

    Treatment for spinal trauma depends on the severity of the injury and should begin as soon as possible. Some injuries can be treated medically and others require surgery. For some injuries, particularly severe fractures or dislocations of the spine, there is not treatment available and euthanasia should be considered.

    The goal of treatment is to alleviate swelling, control hemorrhage, alleviate compression on the cord and to stabilize the vertebral column if a fracture or luxation is present. Treatment for spinal trauma can be medical, surgical or a combination of both.

  • Medical therapy often involves the administration of corticosteroids, primarily methylprednisolone sodium succinate. It should be administered within eight hours of the injury to be effective. If given later, it can worsen the spinal injury.
  • Surgical therapy should be considered in animals with unstable fractures or luxations or animals with worsening neurologic signs despite medical therapy. Surgery should be performed by an experienced neurosurgeon.
  • Home Care and Prevention

    There is no home care for spinal trauma. The dog should be placed on a stiff board immediately and not allowed to move. Take the dog to a veterinarian immediately for treatment.

    Following treatment, dogs must be strictly confined for at least six weeks. Some animals may take several weeks to months to recover and may have lingering permanent neurologic deficits. Physical therapy, hydrotherapy, massage and acupuncture may be helpful.

    Since dogs allowed to roam are more at risk of traumatic injury, not allowing dogs to roam can reduce the risk of spinal trauma.

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