Spondylosis in Dogs - Causes, Treatment and Life Expectancy
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Spondylosis is a degenerative process that affects the spine of dogs. It is characterized by the formation of bone overgrowths in the lower and lateral part of the vertebrae. In the majority of cases, the problem is a degenerative condition and occurs over a period of years. For this reason, spondylosis usually appears in older dogs. The condition can affect younger dogs when their spine experiences instability due to various causes.
At AnimalWised, we look at spondylosis in dogs. More specifically, we look at its causes, symptoms and treatment, as well as what we might be able to expect in terms of life expectancy of dogs with spondylosis.
What is spondylosis in dogs?
Spondylosis is a slowly developing, degenerative disease that affects the spine of dogs. It is a non-infectious condition characterized by the wear and tear of the spinal column. It is not an inflammatory process in itself, but it is often the result of the inflammatory disease spinal osteoarthritis. It can lead to various complications, including the growth of osteophytes, i.e. bone overgrowths. When osteophytes grow it is known as spondylosis deformans in dogs.
There are different types of spondylosis in dogs, depending on the area of the spine affected. The most common include:
- Cervical spondylosis: affects the neck part of the spine.
- Thoracic spondylosis: affects the middle region of the spine.
- Lumbar spondylosis: affects the lower lumbar region of the spine.
Multilevel spondylosis can occur when multiple parts of the spine are affected. When severe, spondylosis in dogs can affect the central nervous system and affect motor skills. It can also have neurological repercussions, but this may also be an unrelated concurrent issue due to age-related degeneration.
Causes of spondylosis in dogs
Although the etiology of spondylosis deformans is not well defined, its origin seems to be related to aging and spinal instability. With the advancement of age, the soft tissues responsible for stabilizing the spinal column degenerate and lose elasticity. The consequences produce instability of the spine.
A similar spinal instability happens when repeated microtraumas occur, including gait disturbances (e.g. limping), continuous pressure on the vertebral joints or pressure on the spine caused by being overweight. These factors can result in excessive tension of the spine which can lead to degeneration. In spondylosis deformans, the body responds by creating osteophytes to counteract the spinal instability.
There are certain factors which can influence the development of spondylosis in dogs, including:
- Age: an older dog has more opportunity to incur traumas to the spine compared to younger dogs. Even normal activity can cause deterioration in the vertebrae of the spine after sufficient time. However, it is not the only factor in spondylosis and it can occur in younger dogs, although rarely so.
- Activity: working or sporting breeds are more frequently affected by spondylosis as their increased activity levels create more wear on the vertebral column.
- Size: large and heavy breeds are also more predisposed to these types of injuries.
- Neutering: the prevalence of these lesions is slightly higher in neutered dogs than those with reproductive organs intact.
While it can depend on the size and breed of the animal, a dog is considered elderly after they have reached 8 years of age. This does not mean that the dog will develop spondylosis, but it has much higher incidence in elderly dogs. Not all dogs will show signs and diagnosis is often incidental after having radiography for unrelated reasons. There is also a potential genetic influence as can be seen in a study of Italian Boxer Dogs where the incidence was as high as 84% in the dogs used in the study.
Spondylosis in dogs is sometimes given other names, including:
- Rheumatoid spondylosis
- Spondylosis ossificans
- Ankylosing spondylosis
- Degenerative hypertrophic arthritis
- Lumbosacral degenerative disease of the dog
Although they may refer to some variation of the condition, they are all types of spondylosis.
Symptoms of spondylosis in dogs
The vast majority of dogs with spondylosis do not present associated symptoms, i.e. they remain asymptomatic. In fact, spondylosis is often diagnosed as an incidental finding when performing a radiographic study of the spine for some other reason.
Although osteophytes can be very large, they do not usually invade the spinal canal. Therefore, do not produce spinal cord compression. However, when the bone formations are located laterally, they can compress the nerve roots that come out of the spine (root compression), which can cause clinical signs such as:
- Pain: manifests in antalgic postures (postures to relieve pain) or refusal to move. They also usually show pain on palpation at the exit of the nerve roots. Learn more with our article on dogs with lower back pain.
- Rigidity: can cause an awkward gait or stiffness when standing.
- Weakness in the posterior third: we can see their hind legs shaking or even changing positions when walking.
- Limp: another issue which affects gait.
Dogs are good at hiding their discomfort, so it is important we closely observe for signs of pain in dogs.
Diagnosis of spondylosis in dogs
The diagnosis of canine spondylosis is simple and is made by radiography. It is also important to include a complete neurological examination within the diagnostic protocol in order to detect possible neurological damage caused by spondylosis.
On radiographic examination, spondylosis is seen as protrusions (osteophytes) from the inferior border of the vertebrae toward the anterior and posterior ends of adjacent vertebrae. As it progresses, they develop a hooked appearance commonly referred to as a ‘parrot's beak’. In the most advanced cases, a bridge is formed that unites the bodies of the vertebrae at the ventral level. When only an isolated osteophyte is observed in a vertebra, it is usually referred to as canine spondyloarthrosis.
Faced with this type of injury, it is important to make a differential diagnosis with other processes that also occur with the formation of new bone. These include vertebral tumors and spondylitis. However, a simple radiological examination will allow us to distinguish spondylosis from these other pathologies.
Find out about another type of canine condition which is discovered due to x-rays with our article on elbow dysplasia in dogs.
Treatment of spondylosis in dogs
Spondylosis is a degenerative process for which there is no curative treatment. In many cases, the dog may have some signs of movement impairment, but the changes in vertebrae generally do not present symptoms and do not require any specific treatment.
When dogs do present symptoms of spondylosis, it is important to establish treatment in the form of symptom management. This can include analgesics to relieve the pain and treatments to manage neurological impairment. The therapeutic management of these patients may include:
- Analgesia: depending on the degree of pain, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as meloxicam or opioids such as tramadol may be administered.
- Surgical treatment: it is sometimes necessary to resort to a surgical procedure to decompress the nerve roots.
- Chondroprotectors: provide nutrients to reduce the degeneration of intervertebral joints.
- Rehabilitation program: may include physiotherapy, laser therapy, acupuncture, etc.
- Dietary management: it is important to correctly manage the feeding of these animals, especially if they are overweight or obese.
Learn more about possible symptoms management options with our article on physical therapy for dogs with arthritis.
Prevention of Spondylosis in Dogs
Preventing the appearance of spondylosis in dogs is complicated. It is a degenerative pathology that most often appears as a consequence of age. There are some preventive measures that can be taken into account which may delay its appearance:
- Diet: prevention of being overweight or obesity with proper dietary management throughout the life may help reduce the strain on their vertebrae.
- Exercise: avoid aggressive exercises or work that may cause instability or injury to the spine.
- Stretching: in dogs participating in canine sports or working dogs, maintain a good warm-up and stretching routine before and after physical exercise is important.
- Regular checkups: to detect and treat early any process that may cause tension or instability of the spine.
Life expectancy of dogs with spondylosis
As we have explained throughout the article, spondylosis is a process that usually occurs without symptoms. If you are wondering how long a dog with spondylosis can live, you should know that in most cases it is not a pathology that greater affects the life expectancy of the animals that suffer from it.
However, in very advanced cases, severe compression of the nerve roots can occur, causing intense pain or serious neurological signs. In these cases, euthanasia in dogs can become a valid alternative for reasons of animal welfare. Since it is a condition which usually accompanies advanced age, it is most likely the dog will be experiencing other age-related issues which can affect their life expectancy.
Learn more about physical deterioration in dogs with our article on neurological problems in older dogs.
This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.
If you want to read similar articles to Spondylosis in Dogs - Causes, Treatment and Life Expectancy, we recommend you visit our Degenerative diseases category.
1. Carnier, P., Gallo, L., Sturaro, E., Piccinini, P., & Bittante, G. (2004). Prevalence of spondylosis deformans and estimates of genetic parameters for the degree of osteophytes development in Italian Boxer dogs. Journal of Animal Science, 82(1), 85-92.
- Mejia, E. (2008). Orthopedics, neurology and rehabilitation in small species: dogs and cats. The Modern Handbook.
- Perez, M., Green, M.T., & Unzueta, A. (2003). Radiographic lesions and involvement of individual factors in spondylosis deformans and vertebral sclerosis in dogs. Rev AVEPA, 23(1), 18-24.