Spinal fractures in dogs: a serious problem
If your dog has suffered a back injury, you are right to be concerned. A broken back in dogs, also known as a spinal fracture, is an emergency and requires immediate veterinary attention.
Can dogs survive a broken back?
Yes, dogs can survive a broken back. Spinal fractures are an emergency, but recovery is possible. However, this ultimately depends on the extent of the lesion and its location, as well as the promptness and adequacy of treatment.
If your dog has had an accident, go immediately to the nearest emergency veterinary hospital. When it comes to spinal injuries, time is of the essence and it is important to be proactive.
While it is possible for dogs to survive a broken back, for some dogs there may be lifelong consequences that require careful management.
In this article, veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec, a vet graduate from Sv. Kliment Ohridski College of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia, discusses the following topics:
- What is a spinal fracture
- How is a spinal fracture different from a dislocation?
- How dogs hold up a broken back
- Signs of a Spinal Fracture in Dogs
- How is a broken back in a dog diagnosed?
- Treatments for spinal fractures in dogs
- Prognosis for dogs with a broken back
- When should a dog with a broken back be put to sleep?
What is a spinal fracture in dogs?
A spinal fracture is a break in the bones (vertebrae) that make up the dog’s backbone.
Spinal fractures can be complete (if the broken vertebra is separated into two parts) and incomplete (if the vertebra is not separated into two parts).
Based on whether they change the alignment of the spine, spinal fractures can be classified as displaced or nondisplaced.
What is the difference between spinal fracture and dislocation?
A spinal fracture is a broken bone, while a spinal dislocation (medically known as a dislocation) is when two vertebrae separate.
In both cases, displacement of the bones can result in injury to the spinal cord and/or nerves.
What Causes a Spinal Fracture in Dogs?
Spinal fractures in dogs are the result of traumatic events and injuries. The incidence of spinal fractures is higher in young dogs, as they lack road sense and are more prone to traffic accidents. Spinal fractures also tend to be more common in entire males prone to wandering and escaping due to the need to mate.
These are the most common scenarios that result in spinal fractures.
Car accidents are the most common event resulting in spinal fractures in dogs. Dogs, especially younger ones and those kept indoors, lack road sense and can easily injure themselves.
falls from heights
Dogs are boisterous and may accidentally jump or fall from a high surface. In such cases, spinal injuries are very likely.
Gunshot injuries are the result of human cruelty or, in hunting dogs, may be the result of accidents. Either way, one of the most common consequences of gunshot injuries in dogs is a broken back.
Finally, spinal fractures can be caused by attacks from other dogs and animals. For example, a large dog attacking a small dog is likely to cause spinal injuries and break the smaller dog’s back.
5 Signs of a Spinal Fracture in Dogs
Signs and symptoms of spinal fractures in dogs range from mild weakness to paralysis. Depending on the extent of the lesion, there are additional signs. Here’s a closer look at the signs and symptoms of spinal fractures in dogs.
Dogs with a broken back will feel pain. The pain is most intense in the spinal region, especially around the point of trauma. In that area, the dog will experience so-called spinal hyperesthesia (even a minor touch is unbearable).
2. Loss of sensation
In severe cases, the dog will lose feeling in one or more limbs and the tail. This is generally a poor prognostic sign.
Sometimes spinal cord injuries cause loss of bladder and bowel control or incontinence. In simple terms, this means that the dog will urinate and defecate involuntarily and without control.
4. Inability to stand and walk
In cases of severe spinal cord damage, the dog will lose function in one or more limbs, resulting in an inability to stand and/or walk.
5. Presence of additional lesions
Since broken backs are the result of traumatic events, the dog is likely to display additional injuries such as crushed nails, bite wounds, road rash, etc.
How are spinal fractures in dogs diagnosed?
As always, when diagnosing a dog, the vet will start with a physical exam. The vet will then perform orthopedic and neurological evaluations.
Dogs with a broken back will show pain on spinal palpation, decreased or absent reflexes, decreased voluntary movement of the legs and tail, decreased or absent sensation in the extremities, and decreased or absent anal and bladder tone.
After this initial evaluation, the vet will require an X-ray of the dog’s spine for a definitive diagnosis. Based on the x-rays, the vet will be able to distinguish between fractures and dislocations.
In some cases, the vet may also order more advanced imaging techniques, such as MRIs and CT scans.
If the patient is supposed to undergo corrective surgery, the vet will order X-rays of the chest and abdomen, as well as blood tests. The goal is to check for additional injuries and to determine if the patient is stable enough to be anesthetized.
What is the treatment for spinal fractures in dogs?
Since most patients with vertebral fractures have sustained traumatic injuries, the first step in treatment should be stabilization. This may include oxygen support and intravenous fluids depending on the level of respiratory and cardiovascular distress.
Pain management is another important aspect of stabilization. Veterinarians will usually give you opioids to achieve pain control. During the stabilization period, if the dog is unable to empty its bladder, it will be manually emptied.
As for the spinal fracture itself, there are two options: non-surgical and surgical treatment. Here’s a more detailed analysis of each.
Non-surgical treatment of spinal fracture
Depending on the exact location of the fracture, your vet may recommend a cage rest that can last six to eight weeks. If necessary, the vet can also apply external support bandages that will keep the spine stable.
If bandages are used, they must be kept clean.
Surgical treatment of spinal fracture
In other cases, surgical stabilization of the spine is necessary. This is accomplished by placing metal pins, screws, and wires. Surgery is the most effective option, but it is also expensive and risky. The risks include:
The structures that surround the spinal cord are delicate and easily damaged. To reduce this risk, the surgeon will manipulate the tissues very carefully and use magnification.
There are many large blood vessels on both sides of the spinal cord. If accidentally damaged, they can cause bleeding.
After surgery, there are several potential risks, including infection, compression of the spinal cord by scar tissue, and implant rupture.
What Happens After Treatment for Spinal Fractures in Dogs?
Following treatment of spinal cord fractures in dogs, proper nursing care is imperative, including:
During the rest period, the dog should be turned to different sides to avoid complications such as bedsores and atelectasis (collapsed lung).
suitable bed for dogs
It is also important to provide the dog with a good dog bed. Ideally, the dog bed should be orthopedic and waterproof.
The dog needs to be offered high-quality, nutritious, and highly palatable foods that support healing.
Some dogs also require physical therapy to speed recovery and regain strength in their limbs.
There are different forms of physiotherapy that can be used such as physical exercises, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, PEMF therapy, etc.
What is the prognosis for dogs with spinal fractures?
Generally speaking, the prognosis for dogs with a broken back depends on the severity of the injury (how damaged the spinal cord is) and the promptness of treatment.
Good to excellent
Dogs without neurologic abnormalities and mild abnormalities that are treated promptly usually make a full recovery. In such cases, the prognosis is good to excellent.
The prognosis is good for dogs that lose function in one or more legs but may still feel pain. Recovery may not be complete (deficits in limb function, such as weakness and incoordination, may persist long-term), but it is possible. In these dogs, if bladder and bowel control was initially lost, it usually returns.
Finally, for dogs that have lost the ability to feel pain below the point of injury, the prognosis is poor. Loss of pain sensation indicates severe spinal cord damage, which can result in non-functional limbs and the inability to control bladder and bowel movements.
When to put down a dog with a spinal fracture
A dog with a spinal fracture should be humanely euthanized if its quality of life is severely affected or if long-term treatment is not possible.
Options for dogs with severe spinal damage are limited and boil down to custom wheelchairs and lifelong incontinence management. However, this is easier said than done, especially for large dogs.
The decision to put down your dog is hard and painful. However, sometimes it is the best course of action. Talk to your vet and request an evaluation of the dog’s quality of life; if compromised, euthanasia is recommended.
This article is accurate and true to the best knowledge and belief of the author. It is not intended to replace the formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription or advice of a veterinary medical professional. Animals showing signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2023 Adrienne Farricelli