Can a Dog Survive With a Broken Back (Spinal Fracture)?

A spinal fracture in dogs is a serious condition requiring immediate veterinary attention. Prognosis may vary based on several factors.

Can a Dog Survive With a Broken Back (Spinal Fracture)?

A spinal fracture in dogs is a serious condition requiring immediate veterinary attention. Prognosis may vary based on several factors.

A spinal fracture in dogs is a medical emergency.

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Spinal Fractures in Dogs: A Serious Issue

If your dog has sustained a back injury, you are right to be concerned. A broken back in dogs, also known as a spinal fracture, is an emergency and requires immediate veterinary attention.

Can Dogs Survive a Broken Back?

Yes, dogs can survive a broken back. Spinal fractures are an emergency, but recovery is possible. However, this ultimately depends on the extent of the injury and its location, as well as the promptness and adequacy of the treatment.

If your dog has been in an accident, immediately go to the nearest emergency veterinary hospital. When it comes to spinal injuries, time is of the essence, and it is important to be proactive.

While it is possible for dogs to survive a broken back, for some dogs, there can be life-long consequences that require careful management.

In this article, veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec, a licensed veterinarian graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia, goes over the following topics:

  • What a spinal fracture is
  • How a spinal fracture is different from a dislocation
  • How dogs sustain a broken back
  • The signs of a spinal fracture in dogs
  • How a dog's broken back is diagnosed
  • Treatments for spinal fractures in dogs
  • Prognosis of dogs with broken backs
  • When should a dog with a broken back be put to sleep?

What Is a Spinal Fracture in Dogs?

A spinal fracture is the breaking of the bones (vertebrae) that form the dog’s spinal column.

Spinal fractures can be complete (if the broken vertebra is separated into two pieces) and incomplete (if they do not separate the vertebra into two sections).

Based on whether they change the alignment of the spinal column, spinal fractures can be categorized as displaced or non-displaced.

What Is the Difference Between Spinal Fracture and Dislocation?

A spinal fracture is a broken bone, while a spinal dislocation (medically known as luxation) is when two vertebrae come apart from each other.

In both cases, the displacement of bones can result in spinal cord and/or nerve injuries.

Dogs with spinal fractures should see the vet immediately.

What Causes a Spinal Fracture in Dogs?

Spinal fractures in dogs are the result of traumatic events and injuries. The incidence of spinal fractures is higher in young dogs as they lack road sense and are more likely to get in traffic accidents. Spinal fractures also tend to be more common in intact males prone to roaming and escaping because of mating urges.

Here are the most common scenarios resulting in spinal fractures.

Road Accidents

Traffic accidents are the most common event resulting in spinal fractures in dogs. Dogs—especially younger ones and ones kept indoors—lack road sense and can easily get hurt.

Falls From Heights

Dogs are rambunctious and can jump or accidentally fall from a high surface. In such cases, spinal injuries are very likely.

Gunshot Injuries

Gunshot injuries are either the result of human cruelty or, in hunting dogs, they can be the result of accidents. Either way, one of the most common consequences of gunshot injuries in dogs is a broken back.

Animal Attacks

Finally, spinal fractures can be caused by attacks from other dogs and animals. For example, a large dog attacking a small dog is likely to inflict spinal injuries and break the smaller dog’s back.

5 Signs of a Spinal Fracture in Dogs

The signs and symptoms of spinal fractures in dogs range from mild weakness to paralysis. Based on the extent of the injury, there are additional signs. Here is a closer look at the signs and symptoms of spinal fractures in dogs.

1. Pain

Dogs with broken backs will be in pain. The pain is most intense in the spinal region, especially around the trauma point. In that area, the dog will be experiencing so-called spinal hyperesthesia (even minor touch is excruciating).

2. Loss of Sensation

In severe cases, the dog will lose sensation in one or more limbs and its tail. This is generally a poor prognostic sign.

3. Incontinence

Sometimes, spinal cord injuries result in loss of bladder and bowel movement control or incontinence. In simple terms, this means the dog will urinate and defecate involuntarily and without control.

4. Inability to Stand and Walk

In cases of severe spinal cord damage, the dog will lose the function of one or more limbs, resulting in an inability to stand up and/or walk.

5. Presence of Additional Injuries

Since broken backs result from traumatic events, it is likely for the dog to show additional injuries, including shredded nails, bite wounds, road rashes, etc.

X-rays are part of a spinal fracture diagnosis.

How Are Spinal Fractures in Dogs Diagnosed?

As always, when diagnosing a dog, the vet will start with a physical examination. Then, the veterinarian will perform orthopedic and neurologic evaluations.

Dogs with broken backs will show pain upon spinal palpation, decreased or absent reflexes, decreased voluntary movement of the legs and tail, decreased or absent sensation in the limbs, and decreased or absent bladder and anal tone.

Following this initial evaluation, the vet will require an x-ray of the dog’s spine for a definitive diagnosis. Based on the x-rays, the vet will be able to distinguish between fractures and luxations.

In some cases, the vet may also order more advanced imaging techniques such as MRIs and CT scans.

If the patient is supposed to undergo corrective surgery, the vet will order chest and abdominal x-rays, as well as blood tests. The goal is to check for additional injuries and determine whether the patient is stable enough to be anesthetized.

What Is the Treatment for Spinal Fractures in Dogs?

Since most patients with spinal fractures have sustained traumatic injuries, the first treatment step should be stabilization. This may include oxygen support and intravenous fluids based on the level of respiratory and cardiovascular distress.

Pain management is another important aspect of stabilization. Usually, to achieve pain control, vets will give opioids. During the stabilization period, if the dog is not able to empty its bladder, it will be emptied manually.

As for the spinal fracture itself, there are two options: non-surgical and surgical treatment. Here is a more detailed analysis of each.

Non-Surgical Spinal Fracture Treatment

Based on the exact fracture location, the vet may recommend cage rest that can last for six to eight weeks. If necessary, the vet can also put on external support bandages that will keep the spine stable.

If bandages are used, they must be kept clean.

Surgical Spinal Fracture Treatment

In other cases, surgical stabilization of the spine is necessary. This is achieved through the placement of metal pins, screws, and wires. Surgery is the most effective option, but it is also expensive and risky. The risks include:

Damage

The structures surrounding the spinal cord are delicate and easily damaged. To reduce this risk, the surgeon will manipulate the tissues very carefully and use magnification.

Intra-Operative Hemorrhage

There are many large blood vessels running on both sides of the spinal cord. If accidentally damaged, they can cause bleeding.

Post-Operative Complications

After the surgery, there are several potential risks, such as infection, spinal cord compression by scar tissue, and implant breakage.

What Happens After Spinal Fractures Treatment in Dogs?

Following the treatment of spinal cord fractures in dogs, proper nursing care is a must, including the following:

Switching Positions

During the resting period, the dog must be turned to different sides to prevent complications such as bed sores and atelectasis (lung collapse).

Proper Dog Bed

It is also important to provide the dog with a good dog bed. Ideally, the dog bed should be orthopedic and waterproof.

Nutrition

The dog needs to be offered high-quality, nutritious, and very palatable foods that support healing.

Physical Therapy

Some dogs also require physical therapy to make the recovery faster and regain strength in the limbs.

There are different forms of physical therapy that can be used, like physical exercises, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, PEMF therapy, etc.

What Is the Prognosis for Dogs With Spinal Fractures?

Generally speaking, the prognosis for dogs with broken backs depends on the severity of the injury (how damaged the spinal cord is) and the promptness of the treatment.

Good to Excellent

Dogs with no neurologic abnormalities and mild abnormalities that are treated immediately usually make a full recovery. In such cases, the prognosis is good to excellent.

Fair

The prognosis is fair for dogs that lose the function of one or more legs but are still able to feel pain. The recovery may not be full (limb function deficits such as weakness and incoordination can persist in the long run), but it is possible. In these dogs, if the bladder and bowel control were initially lost, they usually come back.

Poor

Finally, for dogs that have lost the ability to feel pain below the injury point, the prognosis is poor. Loss of pain sensation indicates severe spinal cord damage, which may result in nonfunctional limbs and an inability to control bladder and bowel movement.

When to Put Down a Dog With a Spinal Fracture

A dog with a spinal fracture should be humanely euthanized if its quality of life is severely impaired or if long-term management is not possible.

The options for dogs with severe spinal damage are limited and come down to customized wheelchairs and life-long management of incontinence. However, this is easier said than done, especially for large dogs.

The decision to euthanize your dog is hard and painful. However, sometimes it is the best course of action. Talk to your veterinarian and ask for an assessment of the dog’s life quality—if it is compromised, euthanasia is advisable.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2023 Adrienne Farricelli


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