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Spina Bifida in Dogs

What Is Spina Bifida in Dogs?

Spina bifida in dogs is a congenital defect that manifests when the upper sections of the vertebrae, forming the backbone or spinal column, do not properly close during development, leaving the protective membranes covering the spinal cord exposed. These vertebrae are interconnected by spongy intervertebral discs, facilitating movement and safeguarding the spinal cord.

Typically, spina bifida in dogs is a relatively uncommon condition, with the lower lumbar spine being the most commonly affected area. The defect can result in a spectrum of neurological issues, varying in severity from difficulties in walking to challenges in urination and defecation.

This condition is often detected in the early stages of a puppy’s life, particularly during the initial weeks when they are learning to walk. Unfortunately, many affected puppies face a poor prognosis for a functional life, leading to humane euthanasia. However, for the fortunate few that exhibit minor symptoms or are minimally impacted by the defect, they may lead relatively normal lives with only slight inconveniences for their pet parents.


Symptoms of spina bifida in dogs encompass various indicators such as:

  • Weakness in the rear limbs
  • Urinary and/or fecal incontinence
  • Reduced muscle tone
  • Limited tail movement (lack of wagging or weak tail motions)
  • Abnormal reflexes
  • Absence of pain perception
  • Toe knuckling
  • Unusual gait like bunny hopping
  • Increased sensitivity and pain (hyperesthesia)

Furthermore, dogs might exhibit a dimple, a small external depression along the spine, which often causes discomfort upon touch. Depending on the severity of spina bifida, some dogs may display minimal symptoms or neurological deficits that do not significantly affect their long-term well-being.


Spina bifida in dogs results from improper tissue formation during fetal development. While the precise cause remains unclear, it may be linked to various factors such as exposure to toxins or specific environmental conditions during pregnancy.

Spina bifida often coincides with other congenital defects, including:

  • Meningomyelocele (meninges and/or spinal cord protrusion with or without fluid pockets)
  • Hemi or block vertebrae (abnormal vertebrae shapes)
  • Hydrocephalus (excessive fluid in the skull leading to brain swelling)
  • Dermoid sinus (a tubular sac extending from the skin to deeper tissues)

Although English Bulldogs exhibit the highest prevalence of this condition, it has also been observed in other breeds such as Collies, English Cocker Spaniels, French Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, Miniature Poodles, Chihuahuas, and Dobermans. Males tend to be more affected than females.


To diagnose spina bifida in dogs, veterinarians typically initiate the process with basic blood work, including a complete blood cell count (CBC), internal organ function screening, and a urinalysis. These tests establish a baseline and help eliminate other potential conditions. Subsequently, X-rays are often recommended to identify associated conditions.

Pet owners may then be directed to a veterinary neurologist for an MRI, which serves as the standard diagnostic test for this condition. Additionally, a CT scan and a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) tap may be advised and conducted by the specialist. In cases where an MRI is unavailable or cost-prohibitive, veterinarians may opt for a myelogram. This procedure involves injecting contrast dye into the fluid surrounding the spinal cord. However, it poses risks, particularly for dogs with certain health conditions, and necessitates anesthesia.


Treatment of spina bifida in dogs presents significant challenges, with the condition being lifelong and imposing substantial strain on pet owners while compromising the dog’s quality of life. Euthanasia is frequently considered as an option.

Although surgery cannot offer a cure for spina bifida in dogs, it can mitigate certain symptoms and enhance the dog’s comfort level. Surgery becomes a viable option when symptoms are mild, and the dog is in good overall health.

Dogs with milder symptoms are predisposed to urinary tract infections, skin infections, and muscle atrophy, necessitating regular follow-up visits and rechecks. Medications are often required to aid in the manual expression of the bladder.

Treatment objectives for this condition encompass three main goals: improvement in neurologic deficits, optimization of bladder and bowel function, and enhanced mobility. Consistent grooming practices, bathing, and meticulous hygiene care are essential. In some cases, the use of a doggy wheelchair or similar mobility device may be necessary to improve movement.

Recovery and Management

Recovery and management of spina bifida in dogs, especially after surgery, entail a prolonged process that requires rehabilitation and physical therapy. Hospitalization for several days is typically necessary, followed by weeks to months of physical therapy sessions.

Collaborating with your veterinarian, especially if they are affiliated with the American Association of Rehabilitation Veterinarians, is recommended to develop a tailored treatment plan. Additional post-surgical therapies like acupuncture, laser therapy, and massage may also be beneficial.

Long-term care varies based on the symptoms, with many dogs needing some level of nursing support. Physical therapy, along with appropriate pain management through medications or NSAIDs, is crucial for enhancing the dog’s strength and mobility while preventing muscle atrophy. Tools such as toe-grips for traction, rugs, harnesses, or wheelchairs can aid in maintaining the dog’s mobility and improving their overall quality of life.

Supplementation with joint supplements like Cosequin®, Dasuquin®, and Welactin®, along with a well-balanced, high-quality diet, can help reduce inflammation and promote joint health. Proper grooming practices and the use of doggie diapers and pads, changed regularly, can also be beneficial in managing the condition, while frequent skin inspections help in detecting signs of infection and urine-related skin issues.

Spina Bifida in Dogs FAQs

What is the life expectancy of a dog with spina bifida?

The life expectancy of a dog with spina bifida varies depending on the severity of their symptoms. While some dogs may lead relatively normal lives, many experience challenges such as lack of hind limb control or issues with urinary and fecal habits. In such cases, euthanasia is often considered.

Can spina bifida in dogs be cured?

Spina bifida in dogs cannot be cured, and they typically require lifelong extensive management. However, depending on the severity of the condition, some dogs can lead functional lives, and dedicated pet parents can ensure they enjoy a life filled with joy and dignity.

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