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What is Spina Bifida? 

The vertebrae of the spinal column typically surround and protect the spinal cord. In spina bifida, something goes wrong with the fusion of vertebral arches when embryonic development is occurring, causing the vertebrae to be incomplete. While spina bifida is most often seen in the lower back, it can take place anywhere in your dog’s spinal column. The breed most commonly impacted by spina bifida are English Bulldogs; however’ the disease has occurred in a variety of dog breeds. Spina bifida is a rare congenital abnormality in the vertebrae of the spinal column. The defect may be minor or significant depending on how many of the dog’s vertebrae are impacted.

Symptoms of Spina Bifida in Dogs

Symptoms in dogs with spina bifida range from no visible signs to significant issues. Should the defect be minor, the anomaly may never be noticed unless there is an x-ray done on your dog. In more severe cases where the spinal cord is affected, you may see the following signs:

  • Weakness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Paralysis
  • Inability to control fecal and urine elimination
  • Skin may be dimpled at the location where the defect is present

When there is a significant defect, the spinal cord may be exposed and the defect noticed at birth. If the spinal cord is not exposed, in severe cases the fact that there is a problem is typically clear as your puppy begins to walk.

There are a range of possible abnormalities that can occur with spina bifida. In a case where there is only nonfusion of a small part of one or several vertebrae, your dog will have no medical problems. On the opposite end of the continuum, a majority of the vertebral arch could be missing on several vertebrae along with the spinal cord and/or its lining protruding. In the more severe cases, issues will occur as a result of the part of the spinal cord that is impacted.

There are three sub classifications of spina bifida: spina bifida manifesta, cystica and aperta. These point to there being a protrusion of the spinal cord membranes (meningocele cyst), a protrusion of the spinal cord itself (myelocele), or protrusion of the spinal cord and its membranes (meningomyelocele).

Causes of Spina Bifida in Dogs

Spina bifida is a congenital condition. If during fetal development the vertebrae don’t completely grow around the spinal cord, a part of the spinal cord is exposed, known as spina bifida. While it is thought that spina bifida is an inherited condition, how this occurs has not been identified. Environmental factors also play a role in the occurrence of spina bifida, for example, there being nutritional deficiencies during pregnancy, maternal stress, as well as exposure to toxins.

Diagnosis of Spina Bifida in Dogs

Severe cases of spina bifida in dogs are typically noticed either at birth or at the time which the young puppy starts to walk. Once your puppy is starting to walk, should he have more than a mild form of spina bifida it will be evident that something is wrong and that a trip to the veterinarian is necessary.  Upon taking your dog to the veterinarian, he may be able to recognize the condition when conducting a physical examination. The veterinarian can then confirm the diagnosis with an x-ray, myelograms or radiographs using dye. The veterinarian may also recommend a CT scan. Should your dog have mild defects, they may only be noticed by accident when an x-ray of the area is performed for another reason.