Spinal and Vertebral Birth Defects in Dogs

When it comes to our beloved fur babies, we want nothing but the best for them. However, just like humans, dogs can experience certain health conditions, including congenital spinal and vertebral malformations. But what exactly are these conditions, and how do they affect our furry friends? Let’s dive into the world of spinal and vertebral birth defects in dogs.

Congenital Spinal and Vertebral Malformations in Dogs

Dogs mostly inherit spinal and vertebral malformations genetically, rather than as a result of adverse conditions during fetal development. One particular dominant trait is sacrococcygeal dysgenesis, which refers to defective development. On the other hand, German shorthaired pointers may have a recessive trait called thoracic hemivertebra, which involves chest half-vertebra.

Normally, spinal malformations are noticeable at birth or within the first few weeks of life. However, vertebral malformations may remain hidden until a dog experiences a growth spurt between five to nine months of age. Distorted spinal columns can manifest as lordosis, which is the curvature of the spine at the lower back, or kyphosis, a posterior curvature of the spine.

When it comes to vertebral malformations, scoliosis, a lateral curvature of the spine, is easily visible. If these malformations lead to secondary spinal cord compression and trauma, affected dogs may exhibit ataxia and paresis. Unfortunately, neurological symptoms caused by spinal and vertebral malformations are often unresponsive to medication. In severe and untreatable cases, euthanasia may have to be considered.

Symptoms and Types

Let’s take a closer look at the different symptoms and types of spinal and vertebral malformations in dogs:

  • Malformation of the occipital bones (atlas and axis, the first and second cervical vertebrae at the base of the skull):

    • Causes compression of the upper spinal cord, which can lead to paralysis or sudden death
    • More common in small-breed dogs
  • Hemivertebra (half a vertebra):

    • Kyphosis, scoliosis, and lordosis
    • Wedge-shaped vertebrae, causing an angle in the spine
    • Likely to affect the neurological system
    • Rear limb weakness (paraparesis) or paralysis
    • May remain without symptoms
    • Affects breeds with a short skull and “screw-tailed” breeds (some breeds may desire this feature)
    • Examples: Pugs, Boston terriers, French and English bulldogs
  • Transitional vertebra:

    • Exhibits characteristics of two types of vertebrae
    • May result in cord compression and disc changes
  • Block vertebra:

    • Fused vertebrae due to improper segmentation
    • Animals may live normally without symptoms
  • Butterfly vertebra (vertebra with a cleft through the body and a funnel shape at the ends):

    • Causes instability of the vertebral canal and rarely, compression of the spinal cord with paralysis
  • Sacrococcygeal dysgenesis:

    • Defective formation of the lowest vertebrae in the spine
    • Associated with spina bifida (lack of vertebral arches)
  • Spina bifida:

    • Variable spinal dysplasia (abnormal development), dysraphism (defective spinal fusion), syringomyelia (cyst in the spinal cord), hydromyelia (enlarged central canal in the spinal cord where excess cerebrospinal fluid builds up), and myelodysplasia (defective development of the bone marrow)
    • Dogs may not show symptoms
    • Breeds prone to spina bifida include bulldogs, pugs, and Boston terriers
  • Myelodysplasia:

    • Defective development of the bone marrow
    • Common in Weimaraners
  • Congenital spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal – malformation from birth, hereditary):

    • Chondrodystrophic (dwarf) breeds are susceptible
    • Examples: Basset hound, beagle, dachshunds, lhasa apso, shih tzu, and Pekingese
    • Doberman pinschers are also genetically predisposed
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The primary cause of spinal and vertebral malformations in dogs is genetic inheritance. However, other factors may contribute, such as:

  • Exposure of pregnant bitches to compounds causing birth defects during fetal development
  • Toxins
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Stress


If you suspect that your furry friend may be experiencing spinal or vertebral malformations, it’s crucial to consult with a veterinarian. To make an accurate diagnosis, your vet will require a thorough history of your dog’s health and the onset of symptoms. They will also perform a comprehensive physical examination.

X-rays of the spinal column, including all vertebrae, can often reveal the exact nature of the malformation. In cases where neurological signs like paralysis are present, a myelography may be necessary to determine the level at which the spinal cord is compressed. This imaging technique involves injecting a radiopaque substance into the spine or the space surrounding the spinal cord, making any defects visible on X-ray images.

In some cases, computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be more sensitive than X-rays. However, myelography is generally the preferred diagnostic imaging technique.


Treatment options for spinal and vertebral malformations vary depending on the severity and specific condition. In cases involving the narrowing of the spinal canal and compression of the spinal cord, surgery can be beneficial. Early surgical intervention can help prevent secondary damage caused by spinal compression.

However, if the spinal compression is extensive or long-term, surgery may not provide the desired outcome. In such cases, restricted activity combined with physical therapy can help manage neurological signs like dizziness, seizures, or postoperative paralysis.

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Remember, when it comes to the health and well-being of your furry companion, always consult with a qualified veterinarian. They can provide the best advice tailored specifically to your dog’s needs.

If you want to learn more about pet care or find professional grooming services, visit Katten TrimSalon. They are dedicated to helping you keep your furry friend happy and healthy!

Now that you understand more about spinal and vertebral birth defects in dogs, you can take the necessary steps to ensure your canine companion lives their best life. Stay informed, stay proactive, and give your furry friend all the love and care they deserve!