Spondylosis Deformans in Dogs

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Caring-For-Critters2-200Today we are joining the Caring for Critters Round Robin. Yesterday’s entry from Rescued Insanity was some great advice on being prepared for a sudden illness or injury. Tomorrow, be sure and visit I Still Want More Puppies for a post on kidney disease.
We are sharing our experience with Spondylosis Deformans with our dog Becca. For our post, we talked with Dr. Kenneth Bruecker of Veterinary Medical and Services Group. Dr. Bruecker specializes in orthopedic issues in animals and treated Becca.

Becca in the water therapy tank...with ball.

Becca in the water therapy tank…with ball.

We adopted Becca when she was nine years old. She was an owner turn-in and had lived her life as a service dog. Becca’s service was carrying a pack for her owner. Our understanding from the rescue organization was that her owner was a student and the pack contained books. It didn’t take long for us to recognize she had some severe spine and knee injuries as a result of her service life. We could see the arthritis in her paws and we could see the weakness and deformity of her knees. We didn’t know about the severity of her back issue until we had what we came to call an “incident”. We’ve written a Tale of Tail’s series about Becca and you can read more about her there.
What is Spondylosis deformans?

Dr. Bruecker: Spondylosis deformans or “natural” fusion of spinal segments is generally associated with instability or micro-instability between two vertebrae. The typical cause is inter-vertebral disk degeneration causing a destabilizing of the ligament we call the inter-vertebral disk (or disc). Typically it affects only a single or few disk spaces especially in the low back.
What causes it?

Dr. Bruecker: Presumably disk degeneration is genetic (familial), with dogs from certain breeds (not uncommon in Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherd Dogs) or certain families in a breed more susceptible. It in and of itself is not a painful condition, however the underlying disk instability might be a source of chronic pain/discomfort. Likewise, if the spine is fused over a long segment (multiple vertebrae), stresses are concentrated at the remaining disk space at the end of the line, presumably causing an acceleration of instability at that space, too.
Dietary insufficiency or excesses can cause unusual spinal conditions as well, especially during growth.


What are the symptoms?
skeleton of dog
Xrays revealed that Becca’s total spine was fused from her neck to her tail bone with only the very last disks at the two ends still having movement. As noted by Dr. Bruecker, the length of her fusion created greater instability.
Dr. Bruecker: Rarely do we ever see spondylosis as severe as Becca. In these severe cases, we lean toward calling it Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis (DISH). It does not appear to be the same as DISH in people, but similar underlying circumstances may be at play.

As I mentioned, Becca would have these “incidents” where she would go to lie down and yelp, and we knew she had pinched the nerve. At times, it would happen only once and then she would be fine, but sometimes it would happen each time she went to lie down, so eventually, she would refuse to lie down. It was the cause of many sleepless nights as I tried to get her comfortable. Strong pain medication that knocked her out was our only resort. And once rested, she would usually be okay.


Spinal issues are difficult to detect in your dog as many of them are good at masking pain or injury. Some things to watch for:

  • Weakness in the hind end or rear legs. A dog that walks away while in the process of pooping may be experiencing lower back pain.
  • Reluctance or refusal to turn their head could indicate neck involvement.
  • A tendency to lie down more than usual. Becca would almost fall into her down – there was no graceful easing into a lying down position, it was a plop and she always laid on her side – straight out, no curling around into a fetal position – she couldn’t bend like that.
  • Difficulty holding a sit. Becca never sat – she was either standing or lying down, she just could not get into that position.
  • Difficulty in rising from lying down.
  • Incontinence. Due to the nerve impingement, Becca had incontinence issues that we treated with Pronin.

    What is the treatment?

    Becca enjoying her electro-therapy after her water treadmill exercise.

    Becca enjoying her electro-therapy after her water treadmill exercise.

    Dr. Bruecker: No real treatment options are available unless spinal cord compression is present as a result of a bulging disk or excess bone production. Mobility is obviously limited.
    Given that surgery to correct Becca’s condition was out, we had to take extra special care of Becca to help strengthen her muscles in her back and try to prevent an incident. We treated Becca with light exercise, rest, Gabapentin (to relieve neuropathic pain) and Tramadol, a pain reliever. She was on varying levels of gabapentin and tramadol for years to control her pain and keep her comfortable. Rest was essential, but so was exercise and Becca loved her daily walks and when she was doing well she would even run 1/2 mile or so with us. She loved her fetch and we would toss the ball almost every day at least of couple of times for her.
    It was important to keep her mobility and strength up and we found that as she grew stronger, the incidents decreased.
    We also treated Becca with physical therapy and acupuncture. She would walk on the water treadmill as well as receive massages and electrotherapy. These treatments were good for her knees as well as for overall strengthening. We frequently treated Becca with acupuncture and she loved that. She would come right over and lie down for her Dr. and just completely zone out in relaxation.

    With lots of love and care Becca’s Spondylosis Deformans proved to be a minor issue for her. She was a strong and determined dog who honored her service roots with her stoicism. She still walked with me everyday – maybe shorter and shorter walks, but she went everyday and she’d even get in a few good games of fetch whenever we let her. Unfortunately, her spinal issues prevented us from being more aggressive with her bone cancer she developed a few years later since we couldn’t amputate, but she managed both issues with grace and dignity. She was a true lady and a wonderful dog.
    Additional Readings.

    IVDD – Intervertebral Disk Degeneration
    Intervertebral Disc Disease
    Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis

    NOTE: We are NOT veterinarians and don’t intend for our advice or experience to take the place of your own veterinarian’s diagnosis or treatment. If you suspect a spinal issue in your dog or cat…get yourself to the vet ASAP.

    We’re participating in the Caring for Critters Round Robin hosted by Heart Like a Dog. Caring for Critters is a community of pet owners who are sharing their experiences dealing with their dogs (or cats) health issues. Be sure and check out the Community Page for lots of first hand information and also check the next post in the Round Robin at I Still Want More Puppies tomorrow.

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  1. You guys are so wonderful for treating her and helping minimize her discomfort. This was a very informative and fascinating post-thank you!

  2. I deal with spondy a lot with Pilates students (and my mom has it) but I had know idea dogs could get! Fascinating. Thanks for the great info and for all you did for sweet Becca.
    Bethany recently posted…Each Dog & Cat Are Unique Individuals, So Are Their Nutritional Needs #GetHealthyHappyMy Profile

  3. What a wonderfully informative post – thanks for sharing. Happy WW.

  4. We thought it was going to be a WW post, and we amazed at the creative title, but it was informative instead. We know nothing about this condition. You did a great job with Becca. It stinks when one issue prevents you caring for another, but you did a great job with her.
    Emma recently posted…Waiting For Birthday MailMy Profile

    • Thanks Emma – it was a tough road for Becca, so we were glad we could make her happy and comfortable.
      mkob recently posted…Spondylosis Deformans in DogsMy Profile

  5. What an educational post! Becca is one lucky girl to be loved and cared for so unconditionally, thank you for sharing the information and her story!
    Cathy Connolly recently posted…~Wordless WednesdayMy Profile

  6. Thanks for the great info. I had not heard of this condition. Glad you found something to help Becca.
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  7. First I want to thank you for such a wonderful contribution to the Round Robin! A very informative post.

    I can’t wrap my head around how someone can use a service dog for so long, and then dump her, but I’m so glad she found you, I imagine her life would have been a very hard one without you.

    Delilah was about 18 months old when she came to us and we don’t know her background. After about a year (and 30 pounds) she began having ‘incidents’. Like you I didn’t know what else to call them. She would yip for no apparent reason, but then she would run, and tremble and then withdraw into herself almost to a catatonic state. You would call her but she wouldn’t hear you. She would keep going to the door, like she wanted to escape. It was heartbreaking. And of course, she wouldn’t lie down to sleep. This happened about four different times in about six month increments (roughly.) Each time she would slowly come back to herself over a matter of days. Each time we would rush her to the vet and they couldn’t find anything.

    Finally one of the vets wanted to put her on anti-seizure medicine because we couldn’t find another cause. It was then I consulted the Holistic vet who came out and said, this dog is in pain. He gave her acupuncture and cold laser, some herbal drugs to help her heal, she was visibly better by the time he left the house.

    He recommended we help her lose weight and he ordered x-rays just to rule out anything weird. We started her on raw diet that very week and today she is 70-72 pounds, slim and fit and an amazing athlete. Knock wood she hasn’t had an ‘incident’ in three or four years.
    Jodi recently posted…A Great Dane Ate 43 Socks – WTF WednesdayMy Profile

    • We had a hard time with that concept – that they could give her up…but, they did.
      Delilah’s behavior sounds very similar to Becca’s – did the xrays show anything? I”m glad you’ve built her strength – she’s young, so that’s great.
      mkob recently posted…Spondylosis Deformans in DogsMy Profile

      • Yeah, I can’t believe someone would use a dog for so long, cause her to have issues and dump her. I’m not sure that’s what the life of a service dog is supposed to be like.

        The x-ray did not show anything, BUT she is a ‘walker’ she walks when she poops or pees. She’s ‘fallen’ twice in the past six months or so. Once when she went to jump and once going up the stairs. The explanation could be simple, but she is schedule for dental next month and I will ask for updated back and hip x-rays at the same time.
        Jodi recently posted…A Great Dane Ate 43 Socks – WTF WednesdayMy Profile

        • Yeah, that walking is a sure sign – Jack does it too, and he falls sometimes getting into the car. Keeping her fit and strong is the best medicine.
          mkob recently posted…Spondylosis Deformans in DogsMy Profile

  8. I love how you share that no degree of care is too much when it comes to our pets. You reinforce that anything and everything is possible with care, nutrition, comfort and most importantly – knowledge. You are empowering many people with a “can do” attitude from the information you provide. Thanks so much.
    Groovy Goldendoodles recently posted…THINGS YOUR DOG WANTS TO TELL YOUMy Profile

  9. thanks for a very informative post, I will safe it in my “first-aid-folder”. It was great that you did all what was possible to make it easier for Becca. And I like how much treatments and therapies are possible for pets now. Seems the “modern times” have good sides too :o)
    easyweimaraner recently posted…easyblog MISCHIEF MOANDAYMy Profile

    • Absolutely – all those different treatments really helped her gain strength and that helped her be more comfortable.
      mkob recently posted…Spondylosis Deformans in DogsMy Profile

  10. This was very informative and so sorry Becca had to go through this, I didn’t realize this could happen because of wearing the backpack. I wonder how many other service dogs go through this. They are there to serve a purpose but in the end they have to suffer. Unfair. Thanks for sharing your story.
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  11. As the owner of a service dog, I find it inhumane what they did to Becca. They obviously put the books directly on Becca’s back instead of providing a cart for Becca to pull the books. This would have minimized the pressure directly to Becca’s back. Additionally, service dogs are usually turned back in to the original breeder or the person who raised the dog, or the person keeps the dog at home with them while they have a younger dog. I have never heard of an owner surrendering a “true” service dog to the pound. Something does not sound right……….. Bless you for taking her in. MSM is excellent for decreasing pain if you ever need to research it in the future.

    • She was turned in to a Lab Rescue…don’t know if that makes a difference. Also don’t know if she was a ‘certified’ service dog. She was certainly well trained…but not very well taken care of. We thought it was all very weird too, but really happy that we got her. She was a perfect match for us when our Sally passed because our Tino was blind and she totally accommodated him.
      mkob recently posted…Spondylosis Deformans in DogsMy Profile

  12. Thank you for sharing this post, it’s great info. Our Dottie dog suffers from spondylosis, something we found out after looking into a million other things. She was crying all the time and so uncomfortable. But, once we knew what it was and started on a treatment plan she was better almost over night. We used a combination of cold laser therapy and pain meds. And, we only need to start it again if she’s having trouble, which luckily she’s been OK for over a year now!
    Emily recently posted…Wordless WednesdayMy Profile

    • So glad she is doing better. It’s a tough one to diagnose, so glad you got to the bottom of it.
      mkob recently posted…Spondylosis Deformans in DogsMy Profile

  13. Tons of great info in here. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Becca sounds like a very giving dog, and must have had a tough life to lead to that condition. It’s too bad her previous home didn’t take better care of her. However, you more than made up for that with the wonderful life and care you gave her.
    I had never heard of this condition, so it was very interesting to learn about. Great post!
    Jan K recently posted…Wordless Wednesday – Our New Friend DixieMy Profile

    • Thanks – we were happy to have her and take care of her – she was a real sweetheart.
      mkob recently posted…Spondylosis Deformans in DogsMy Profile

  15. I’m so glad you guys took care of Becca and that she was such a great, loving companion in return. Spondylosis Deformans is really scary to witness, like the ‘incidents’ you mention. I was at a friends house when her Lab suddenly started yelping and laying down. We had no idea if it was a seizure or what. Ended up being Spondylosis Deformans but it took a while to diagnose. I’ll let her know about this article because although her dogs symptoms don’t occur as often anymore I’m sure she’d love to know how else to manage it. Thank you for sharing.
    Jen Jelly recently posted…Is Your Dog a Velcro Dog?My Profile

  16. What a painful affliction for our pets. Back problems are no fun at all. Thanks for bringing this problem to the forefront.
    M. K. Clinton recently posted…Watermelon Fruitables and Adoptable DogsMy Profile

  17. My husband had two GSDs that he had to eventually be helped to cross the Rainbow Bridge due to this issue. Scout and Big Hungry’s cases were so bad they were loosing more and more motility and bodily functions on a daily basis. Thankfully they both had a good long life were easily 14 years old by that time.

    We do have another GSD, Chloe, who is 2, hopefully this disease may spare her, but considering the prevalence of it in GSDs I don’t hold out much hope.

    Oh, and all of the above mentioned dogs Kevin and myself were the second owners to.
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  18. I’m glad you got the help Becca needed. Thank you for sharing this interesting post.

  19. Becca was so lucky to have a caring and knowledgeable family. Thanks for the great information. Believe it or not it almost sounded like you were talking about mom’s back before surgery (like the spondylosis). We can’t imagine a dog having to deal with what she did but you definitely made her last years more comfortable. Love Dolly
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  20. Great information. So glad Becca got help!
    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!
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  21. Oh wow, Becca was lucky to have such a loving family! But it was so sad to hear about her previous life! Service dogs shouldn’t have to suffer!! Of course, life isn’t fair and I shouldn’t be surprised at the cruelty and inhumanity of people 🙁 Thankfully, there are lots of kind souls out there too, like you! Anyway, thanks for the great info–never knew of any dog to have this condition and I now know what to look out for!!
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