Spina Bifida In Canines

by Nancy Boland

Spina bifida is a birth defect that affects not only people but dogs too. During gestation, the vertebrae typically grow around the spinal cord. When they fail to complete this developmental step, the spinal cord is left exposed at birth.

Weakness in the back legs, incontinence and an unsteady gait are all obvious signs of spina bifida, or the animal could be incontinent, depending on the severity of the defect. In some cases, surgery can make small repairs, such as preventing spinal cord exposure through the skin, but in most cases, there is no procedure that can completely reconstruct the vertebrae.

About Spina Bifida

Spina bifida is a congenital abnormality of the spine in which the vertebrae fail to develop normally. Depending on the severity of the defect, it can manifest as anything from a devastatingly malformed, exposed spinal cord to a wholly inconsequential, incidental finding observed only on X-rays and for which the patient requires no treatment.

The lumbar spine (lower back) is most commonly affected, though it’s possible for any part of the spine to be affected. Several adjacent vertebrae are usually involved, though very mild cases may affect only one vertebrae.

Symptoms of Spina Bifida

Severely affected puppies are usually identified with spina bifida patients when they’re born. In these cases, dogs are  predisposed to meningitis, or an inflammation of the covering of the spinal cord, which worsens the prognosis.

Others, however, are flagged as potential candidates when they begin walking. The signs are usually associated with the location of the deformity within the spinal column. Hind limb weakness or unsteadiness on the feet are common symptoms.

At this point, diagnosis is undertaken using basic radiographic (X-ray) techniques to demonstrate the incomplete vertebrae.

Affected Breeds

The British bulldog is the breed most commonly affected by spina bifida.

spina 2


Severe cases of spinal disorders like spina bifida are considered untreatable.

It may also be the case that no treatment is necessary, for example in those cases in which the deformity is detected incidentally upon routine radiography or X-rays undertaken for another issue altogether.


There is no known form of prevention beyond genetic counselling to eventually breed the rare disease out of the breed altogether.

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