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Discospondylitis in Dogs

Discospondylitis in Dogs: Causes, Signs, and Treatments

Discospondylitis in dogs is a bacterial or fungal infection of the intervertebral discs and adjacent bones or vertebrae. Discospondylitis, or DS, is the most common cause of back pain in older dogs. 

Bacteria and fungi spread to the spinal structures through the blood, via direct contamination, or by migrating foreign bodies. The Staphylococcus species are the number one cause of DS in dogs. 

Male, older dogs of certain breeds, such as  German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and Great Danes, are predisposed to discospondylitis. 

Telltale signs of discospondylitis in dogs include pain, limited mobility, ataxia, paresis, paralysis, appetite loss, and fever. 

Discospondylitis is diagnosed with imaging techniques like X-rays, MRI, or CT scans combined with blood or urine cultures, spinal fluid analysis, serology tests, and fine needle aspiration. 

Treating dog discospondylitis involves antimicrobials and pain medications, such as antibiotics or antifungals. Dogs with DS require surgery in some cases. Physical rehabilitation is a great supplement to any discospondylitis in dogs management plan. 

What is Discospondylitis in Dogs?

Discospondylitis is inflammation of the intervertebral discs and the endplates (epiphyses) of the adjacent bones or vertebrae. 

Inflammation is caused by bacteria or fungi spreading through the blood from the oral cavity, heart valves, urogenital tract, or skin. 

Infectious agents are periodically introduced during surgery or paravertebral injection or via migrating inhaled or swallowed foreign bodies, like foxtails. 

Common bacterial causes of DS include Staphylococcus pseudointermedius, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus spp., Escherichia coli, and Brucella canis. Fungi of the Aspergillus variety lead to rare cases of DS. 

Discospondylitis is more prevalent in large to giant breeds of older male dogs, such as Great Danes, German Shepherds, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, Boxers, and English Bulldogs.  

Pain is the main sign of DS and affects the neck, lower back, or upper back, depending on the lesion location. 

Dogs with DS have multifocal (more than one) spinal lesions in 30 to 40% of the cases, states a chapter “Osteomyelitis, Discospondylitis, and Infectious Arthritis” in the 4th edition of “Canine and Feline Infectious Diseases” published by Elsevier in 2014.  

Discospondylitis is curable in some cases and only manageable in others, based on the underlying infectious agent and the severity of neurological damage. Severe DS leads to dog paralysis in some cases.

What are the Clinical Signs of Discospondylitis in Dogs?

The clinical signs of discospondylitis in dogs are listed below. 

  • Pain: The main sign of DS in dogs is pain. The pain area depends on the location of the lesion and affects the neck, upper, or lower back. 
  • Limited Mobility: Dogs with discospondylitis are reluctant to jump on or off furniture, refuse to use the stairs, and are generally lethargic. 
  • Ataxia: Ataxia, or loss of coordination, in dogs with discospondylitis is a neurological sign defined as wobbly walking. 
  • Paresis: Paresis is mild to moderate muscle weakness and affects all four hind legs, depending on the DS lesion site. 
  • Paralysis: Paralysis is a complete loss of muscle function and affects the front, the hind, or all four legs. Paralysis is a sign of severe neurologic damage.  
  • Appetite Loss: Appetite loss is a non-specific sign of discospondylitis and occurs due to pain. 
  • Fever: Fever or increased body temperature is indicative of infection. Dogs get a fever if their body temperature exceeds 103° F. 

Is Discospondylitis in Dogs Curable?

Yes, discospondylitis is curable. Properly treated dogs with non-complicated forms of DS heal within a few months. 

Dog discospondylitis has a good prognosis when treated medically, with 76% of dogs recovering after treatment, according to a study, “Discospondylitis in the Dog: A Retrospective Study of 18 Cases,” published in Vlaams Diergeneeskundig Tijdschrift in 2009. 

Surgery is recommended for more severe cases. Complete recovery is achievable following a longer recovery period with post-surgery medications. 

Discospondlyitis is incurable but manageable in some dogs with fungal infections. Fungal DS requires the life-long use of antifungal drugs to control the infection. 

How is Discospondylitis Diagnosed for Dogs?

Discospindylitis in dogs is diagnosed with X-rays. Radiography is the gold standard for DS diagnosis in dogs. Discospondylitis manifests with multiple lesions, and the X-ray image must include the entire spine. The imaging is done on a sedated dog to ensure proper positioning.  

Radiographic changes indicative of DS in dogs are vertebral lysis, sclerosis, and spondylosis, explains a study, “Diskospondylitis in Dogs,” published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 1980. 

The main drawback of radiography is the lack of visible changes in the early stages of DS. The veterinarian recommends advanced imaging in dogs with standard signs of discospondylitis and negative X-ray images. 

Advanced imaging techniques, like CT and MRI,  improve diagnosis and help identify concurrent disease in dogs with discospondylitis, according to a study, “Diagnostic Imaging of Discospondylitis,” published in The Veterinary Clinics of North America in 2018. 

Blood or urine samples are taken for culture sensitivity tests to determine the bacteria or fungi responsible for the infection. Antibody testing helps reveal antigens in dogs with Aspergillus and Brucella. 

A cerebral fluid sample is collected and analyzed to show an increased protein concentration.   

Fine needle aspiration (FNA) is a last resort if previous sampling does not reveal the infection type. The FNA is inserted in the space between two infected discs. The dog must be anesthetized during the procedure. 

What Sets Discospondylitis Apart from Nerve Tumors in Dogs?

The type of disease sets discospondylitis apart from nerve tumors in dogs. Discospondylitis occurs when infectious agents trigger local inflammation and infection. 

Nervous tissue tumors develop when the specialized nerve cells mutate and divide uncontrollably. 

Tumors of the nervous system are primary if they arise directly from the brain, spinal cord, or peripheral nerves or secondary if they metastasize from different body parts. 

Nervous system tumors in dogs result in seizures, mentation changes, altered sensation, and muscle dysfunction, depending on location and size. 

What are Treatments for Dogs with Discospondylitis?

The treatments for dogs with discospondylitis are listed below. 

  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics are used to control bacterial infections. The antibiotic is chosen based on the culture result. Common options include cephalexin, cephazolin, amoxicillin, enrofloxacin, doxycycline, and gentamycin. Discospondylitis requires long-term use of antibiotics, with milder cases needing only 0-12 months of use. 
  • Antifungals: Dogs with fungal forms of DS are treated with antifungals like itraconazole or fluconazole.  Using antifungal medications in some dogs with discospondylitis is life-long, explains Platt S.R. and Olby N.J. in “Manual of Canine and Feline Neurology,” published by the British Small Animal Veterinary Association in 2013. 
  • Pain Medications: Pain management is critical in discospondylitis treatment. Frequently used analgesics include nonsteroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), gabapentin, fentanyl patches, amantadine, and tramadol. 
  • Surgery: Surgery is performed to decompress the spinal cord, debride infected tissues (in the case of foreign bodies), and remove infected surgical implants. Dogs with DS caused by Brucella canis need to be neutered to eliminate the source of infection. 
  • Cage Rest: The dog must rest during the early phases of the treatment to minimize the risk of trauma. Cage rest works best, and the dog is taken out exclusively to urinate or defecate. A leash is mandatory when outside. 
  • Physical Rehabilitation: Veterinarians sometimes recommend physical rehabilitation to accelerate recovery. Physical therapy is an umbrella term that encompasses techniques of various types. The veterinarian explains which exercises and treatments suit the dog’s condition. 

How to Support Discospondylitis-Affected Dogs?

To support discospondylitis-affected dogs, allow cage rest, provide antibiotics as directed, practice physical therapy, and control the dog’s weight. 

Cage rest is recommended in the initial treatment phases to prevent traumatic injuries. Trauma is associated with an increased risk of relapse according to a study, “Clinical Features, Comparative Imaging Findings, Treatment, and Outcome in Dogs with Discospondylitis: A Multi-Institutional Retrospective Study,” published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine in 2023. 

Use antimicrobials as instructed by the veterinarian. The veterinarian advises the dosage and frequency of antibiotics or antifungals. 

Physical therapy helps reduce pain, prevents muscle mass loss, and maintains normal joint function. Controlled rehabilitation techniques are recommended, such as passive range of motion, thermotherapy, massage, and neuromuscular electrical stimulation. 

Maintain the dog’s weight within the healthy limit to avoid adding pressure to the spine. Physical activity and a healthy diet are critical for weight maintenance. 

Can you Prevent Discospondylitis in Dogs? 

No, you cannot prevent discospondylitis in dogs. Precaution measures serve to reduce the risk of DS occurrence. 

The main prevention option is early diagnosis and treatment of infections elsewhere in the body to avoid infectious agents entering the intervertebral discs and spine. 

Neuter dogs infected with Brucella canis. Use antibiotics as instructed by the veterinarian before and after surgeries to minimize the chances of pre and post-operative infections. 

Maintain dental hygiene, including regular tooth brushing, dental chew use, and professional dental scaling. Groom the dog frequently while monitoring for signs of penetrated foreign bodies that are easily swallowed or inhaled. 

Seek immediate veterinary help for dogs showing signs of discospondylitis. Early care does not prevent DS but increases the likelihood of a good prognosis. 

Can a dog recover from discospondylitis?

Yes, a dog can recover from discospondylitis. The clinical signs of DS improve within 10 days of antibiotic treatment. 

Briefer recovery periods are expected in young dogs and longer recovery periods in older dogs, according to a study, “Radiographic Findings during Recovery from Discospondylitis,” published in Veterinary Radiology & Ultrasound in 2001.

The exact prognosis and recovery time depend on the extent of neurological damage and the dog’s response to treatment. Early diagnosis and prompt veterinary attention increase recovery chances and improve prognosis. 

What Antibiotics Are Used for Discospondylitis in Dogs?

Oral and intravenous antibiotics are used for discospondylitis in dogs. The antibiotic is selected based on the cell culture results. 

Oral antibiotics are administered by the owner following the vet’s instructions, while intravenous antibiotics must be administered by a veterinarian in a sterile environment. 

Antibiotics that are efficient against Staphylococcus species, the most common DS cause, are used while waiting for test results. 

“Common antibiotics include cephalexin or amoxicillin,” states Heather Anderson, DVM, in a post “Discospondylitis: An Overview” for TodaysVeterinaryNurse in 2018.  

Dogs with severe neurological problems and signs of sepsis require intravenous antibiotics for the first five to seven days of treatment. A frequently used intravenous antibiotic is cefazolin. 

The initial antibiotic is continued or adjusted based on the culture result. Cephalexin or cefazolin are recommended for Staphylococcus intermedius, amoxicillin for Streptococcus spp., and enrofloxacin for Escherichia coli

Dogs with DS due to Brucella canis require a combination of two antibiotics, doxycycline and an aminoglycoside, such as gentamicin sulfate. 

The antibiotic treatment for discospondylitis in dogs is lengthy. Milder cases require eight to twelve weeks of antibiotics, while severe DS cases need up to 12 months of treatment. Premature antibiotic discontinuation causes a relapse. Pet owners are able to administer antibiotics at home once a veterinarian has approved and demonstrated how to effectively feed the dog the medicine.

How Long Can a Dog Live with Spondylosis?

Dogs with spondylosis can live long lives. Spondylosis, known as spondylosis deformans, is degeneration of the vertebrae, an expected age-related change. 

Canine spondylosis deformans does not affect longevity. The condition is painful and requires life-long management, however. Spondylosis is excruciating and causes loss of spinal function if left untreated. 

Maintaining a healthy weight and using joint-friendly dog supplement products help manage spondylosis. 

Is Discospondylitis in Dogs a Cancer?

No, discospondylitis in dogs is not a cancer. Discospondylitis is an infection affecting the spinal cord’s bones and discs. 

Cancer is a disease that develops when the host’s DNA changes, causing cells to divide and spread uncontrollably into local or distant tissues. 

The only similarity between discospondylitis and cancer in dogs is the prospect of fatality. DS and cancer are fatal without treatment in most cases. 

Dogs with discospondylitis develop abscesses that compress the spinal cord and cause sudden death if left untreated, according to a study, “Subarachnoid Abscess as a Complication of Discospondylitis in a Dog,” published in the Journal of Small Animal Practice in 1994. 

Cancer is more prevalent than discospondylitis, affecting one in four dogs, states the article “Is My Dog at Risk for Cancer?” published by the American Animal Hospital Association in 2024. 

The most common type of cancer in dogs is lymphoma. Other frequent cancers include mast cell tumors, osteosarcoma, melanoma, mammary gland carcinomas, and hemangiosarcomas. 

How can CBD Help Treat Discospondylitis in Dogs?

CBD can help treat discospondylitis in dogs by reducing inflammation, alleviating pain, and supporting calmness. 

Hemp-sourced cannabidiol-based products are not the sole cure for DS. CBD for dogs helps with DS symptoms when used as a multimodal treatment. 

Inflammation and pain are two main components of discospondylitis. CBD for dogs has potent anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Cannabidiol promotes natural calmness, which is beneficial during the cage rest phase of the recovery process. 

CBD is a natural supplement suitable for dogs of all breeds, ages, and body weights. Dog CBD is safe to use in conjunction with traditional discospondylitis treatments. 

Hemp CBD oil for pet dogs is non-addictive and non-psychogenic. Dogs do not experience highs and do not overdose on CBD.