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What is Spondylosis in Dogs?

What is Spondylosis in Dogs?

Spondylosis deformans, also commonly known as spondylosis, is a degenerative condition that affects the spine in dogs. It is often thought of as arthritis of the spine, however this is incorrect. Unlike arthritis, spondylosis is not an inflammatory condition.

Spondylosis is where bony spurs or ‘osteophytes’ develop along the underside and ends of the spinal vertebrae. These bony growths can form singularly or in multiple locations along the spine. Sometimes, in severe cases, where particularly large bony spurs have formed on the vertebrae, they form a bridge between adjacent vertebrae, effectively linking or fusing the individual vertebrae. These bony bridges are the body's attempt to stabilise the spine in response to degeneration or stress. The bone spurs will only grow as large as needed to reinforce the diseased joint.

Spondylosis is most often found to have developed along the thoracic vertebrae (chest), especially at the point between the rib cage and the abdomen; in the lumbar spine (lower back); and in the lumbosacral spine (around the hips and pelvis).

Early Signs and Symptoms of Spondylosis in Dogs

Many dogs who have spondylosis do not show any symptoms, especially if it is mild. In most cases symptoms only become apparent once bone spurs grown near a nerve and impacts it, or where bridging has occurred. Some evidence has indicated that every dog who lives long enough will develop some degree of spondylosis.

General symptoms may include:

  • Hunched/arched back or abnormal posture
  • Stiffness and/or Lameness
  • Difficulty lying down and getting up
  • Becoming less flexible or reduced range of movement
  • Reluctance to walk, jump or play
  • Tenderness or pain in their back
  • Dragging hind legs
  • Incontinence

If you think your dog might have spondylosis, it is important to get them seen by your vet who can help confirm the diagnosis. Diagnosis is usually made with X-rays or MRI. In the majority of cases where spondylosis is detected, it is an incidental finding while your dog is being examined for an unrelated condition.

What Causes Spondylosis in Dogs?

The exact cause of spondylosis in dogs is not completely understood, but it is thought to develop as a result of a degenerative process of the soft disk material in between the vertebrae. This soft disk material acts as a shock absorber to reduce impact on the spine, however when they become damaged (over time or due to major injury) it means the joints becomes unstable, which produces abnormal motion. In reaction to this bone spurs develop to help re-stabilise the weakened joint(s).

Contributing factors may include:

  • Genetics: Some breeds may be more predisposed to developing spondylosis. Traditionally Boxers are particularly prone
  • Disk damage: Dogs that suffer from an existing spine or disc disease, such as intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)
  • Repetitive stress: Activities that put repetitive stress on the spine, such as jumping or running on hard surfaces
  • Obesity: Excess body weight can contribute to the development of spondylosis

Traditionally spondylosis was thought to only really effect larger breed dogs, however this is increasingly found to be incorrect. Most dogs who experience spondylosis degeneration, will begin to develop these changes by the time they are 10 years old. However some research has suggested that in fact, any dog which lives long enough, will develop the condition to some extent.

So while spondylosis is part of the natural aging process, it can also be caused and/or made worse by trauma. Major trauma is less common and could be from an accident, serious injury or even back surgery. A series of microtraumas is more common, these are small injuries causing damage over a period of time (years). This is from things such as repetitive exercise or concussive activities.

Some breeds seem to be slightly more predisposed to spondylosis than others, this in part is thought to be related to genetics. Some studies have shown up to 70% of Boxers will develop spondylosis in their lifetime, although dogs with conditions such as IVDD are also high risk.

What Age does a Dog get Spondylosis?

In the majority of cases, dogs will develop spondylosis in middle-age, around 9 or 10 years of age. Where there has been major trauma or a strong genetic factor, it could be diagnosed before this age however. Many dogs only have mild spondylosis and therefore do not display symptoms and the condition goes undetected or is misdiagnosed as arthritis of the spine.

How to Help your Dog Around the House

Spondylosis affects different dogs in different ways.

For some they are symptom free, for others they become noticeably more stiff, whereas for a small minority they can become quite crippled. Here are some things which you can do to help your dog in their day-to-day life.

  • Bedding – Ensuring your dog has a comfortable, warm and supportive bed is important. A memory foam or orthopaedic bed can really help to support and cushion your dog’s joints, ensuring good weight distribution.

  • Limit concussion - The bony spurs which develop when your dog has spondylosis, is to try and stabilise the spine and help with shock absorption. So if your dog has any sort of back injury, preventing them from jumping or activities which cause concussion on their spine, is important. Try to prevent/reduce your dog from jumping or standing on their back legs, running up and down stairs or jumping/landing from heights such as furniture or the boot of your car. Sometimes this is easier said than done! If you struggle to prevent your dog from jumping etc, you can try and mitigate this by putting in little stepping-stones, so the impact on their spine is less.

  • Mobility aids - If you are not able to lift your dog or they appear uncomfortable, slings or ramps can also be very useful to help them get around.

  • Exercise - the right kind of exercise is key. Keeping your dog a healthy weight is important. In middle aged or more elderly dogs it can be difficult to keep them active. Dogs with spondylosis too can be quite stiff and repetitive activities can be painful and make the condition worse. Low impact activities however such as short regular walks on soft, even ground, swimming and also physical therapy can all be really helpful.

  • If you have slippery floors anti-slip socks or boots can be great in helping your dog get traction with their back legs, especially if they have some muscles wastage in their hind quarters. Similarly putting down carpets on any slippery floors can be just as good.

Treatment for Spondylosis in Dogs

Spondylosis is a chronic disease, which unfortunately means that it is not curable, so treatment focuses on managing symptoms, ensuring your dog is as pain free as possible and giving them the best quality of life you possibly can.

Treatment options depend on your individual dog and what (if any) symptoms they are displaying. Luckily for the majority of cases, dogs do not seem to experience or display any signs of pain or stiffness and so no treatment is needed, just monitoring.

If however your dog does have some symptoms such as pain and/or stiffness is evident, your vet may recommend giving your dog medications such as an anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) or another kind of pain killer. Nutritional supplements containing glucosamine, methylsulphonylmethane (MSM) or chondroitin sulphate have also sometimes found to be helpful.

ontrolled exercise, physical therapy and acupuncture can also be helpful, to regain strength and help with mobility. Preventing your dog from becoming overweight or obese is also really important. Excess weight puts increased stress on the spine and makes symptoms worse.

In rare cases, where the bone spurs may be causing severe pain, spinal cord compression or neurological issues, then surgery to remove these spurs may be indicated.

Conclusion

Overall the outlook for a dog with spondylosis is good. Many dogs have little or no symptoms and their spondylosis goes undetected for their entire lifetime or is sometimes mis-diagnosed as arthritis. Typically, although your dog’s flexibility and range of motion may be reduced, with good management, they are still able to live a long and full life.

Mr Finlay, my Rough Collie, paw knuckles due to Spondylosis

Read about Mr Finlay

Spondylosis in Dogs - Causes, Prevention and How to Help