Spina Bifida Info

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Learn more about Spina Bifida:

 Symptoms of Spina Bifida

By definition, spina bifida is a congenital disorder, meaning that it is present at birth. Spina bifida is not progressive and does not worsen with time. Signs of this condition usually are first noticed when affected puppies try to walk, between one and two weeks of age. Sometimes, dogs with spina bifida never develop observable symptoms.

As mentioned above, some dogs born with spina bifida never show signs of their condition. Owners of dogs that do develop clinical signs may notice one or more of the following signs:

  • Rear limb paresis (weakness)
  • Slight to moderate incomplete paralysis of one or both hind legs
  • Decreased muscle tone (hind end)
  • Muscle atrophy (hind end)
  • Ataxia (lack of coordination)
  • Fecal incontinence
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Loss of sensation in the perineal area (the region between the tail and the genitalia)
  • Decreased anal sphincter tone
  • Decreased ability to use the tail

In rare cases, there may be a draining mass on the dog’s back, towards its tail. Other possible signs are dimpling of the skin and/or abnormal direction of hair growth over the affected area of the animal’s spine.

Dogs at Increased Risk

Spina bifida can occur in any dog of any breed or mixed breed and of either sex. However, it is most commonly seen in English Bulldogs (and in Manx cats), which is why a hereditary component to this condition is suspected.

Treatment Options

The management of spine and spinal cord disorders depends upon the nature and severity of the particular abnormality. Treatment is rarely attempted for dogs with spina bifida, mainly because there is no reliable way to “treat” – or fuse – the defect in the abnormal vertebral bones. If a dog has clinical symptoms as a result of a spinal malformation, it means that the spinal cord has already been damaged. At that point, treatment is almost never available or effective.

There is no current treatment for spina bifida in domestic dogs. Attempts to correct the vertebral defects surgically have not been successful, and management with drugs, supplements or dietary modification have no meaningful impact on the condition. Puppies with spina bifida are born with one or more vertebrae that did not develop normally, leaving a gap at the uppermost side of the bone that exposes the spinal cord. The abnormal opening makes the spinal cord vulnerable to trauma and provides a pathway for it to “pop” or squeeze out of its normally protected canal. When this happens, it usually leads to significant neurological damage, because the edges of the gaps in the vertebral bones are rarely smooth and because the spinal cord is extremely fragile. Once the spinal cord is damaged, the adverse consequences are almost always irreversible.

However, if the spinal cord of an affected dog does not bulge out through the gap in the upper side of the vertebrae, and if the spinal cord and associated nerves otherwise remain undamaged, the dog may never have noticeable symptoms associated with its condition. In those cases, the animal probably will live a full, happy and pain-free life – at least, without complications of spina bifida – even without any medical treatment for the disorder.


The prognosis and life-expectancy for dogs born with this anatomical spine defect is quite variable. If a dog has significant spinal cord damage caused by the congenital failure of one or more of its vertebrae to fuse, and if it shows severe signs of neurological deficits, its outlook is guarded to grim. On the other hand, the prognosis for dogs that have no observable symptoms of spina bifida is quite good. They probably should be restricted from engaging in vigorous athletic activities, be well-trained and be encouraged to be calm, in order to enhance their chances of avoiding future spinal cord damage if at all possible.