Back problems in dogs are common, but making the correct diagnosis about the cause of your dog’s condition can be tricky.
If your dog has a change in posture, favors one side, winces when you touch her back, is reluctant to turn her head, or shows coordination issues, there may be a possible back problem.One or more of these symptoms will likely generate a diagnostic test from your veterinarian. Here is a list of the best tests used to diagnosis spinal cord problems in dogs:
- X-Ray – After a thorough exam your vet will probably order this test first. X-rays are relatively inexpensive and can point to a fracture, infection or bone cancer. X-rays can also determine if arthritis, a malformation of the spine or if a slipped disc pressing on the spinal cord is causing your dog’s symptoms.
- Blood Tests– This test will probably be ordered if the X-ray is inconclusive. Blood tests can detect metabolic disorders that affect the nervous system, lead poisoning, infections and some fungal diseases. Blood tests also diagnose Myasthenia Gravis, which is an autoimmune disease that blocks the connection between the nerves and muscles to cause weakness.
- Myelogram – This next test is a bit more invasive. It involves injecting a special dye into the spinal canal that becomes visible on an X-ray. Myelograms can determine herniated disks and spinal cord tumors.
- Spinal Tap – By extracting fluid from around the brain and spinal cord, a spinal tap can provide very useful diagnostic information. It can detect the presence of encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) meningitis, cancer or a compressive injury of the spine. Spinal taps also diagnose fungal infections, brain abscesses and some tumors.
- Electroencephalogram –An EEG test records electric brain activity. It is not used as often as the other diagnostic tools, but can be helpful to point out meningitis or encephalitis, head injuries or brain tumors.
- CT Scan (computed tomography) or CAT Scan – This procedure is one of the “big guns” in diagnostic testing. CT Scans are expensive and require your dog to be anesthetized so she will remain completely still during the process. The test is administered by a specialist. CT Scans are also one of the most useful methods to look at the brain or spine. The scan sends a very fine x-ray beam through body collecting information that is sent back to a computer. It is best used to diagnose soft tissue problems and tumors.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) – The MRI is the “big daddy” of all diagnostic tools. It is also very expensive, costing several thousand dollars, depending how much of the spine must be viewed. The process uses magnetic and radio waves to see inside a dog’s body. The good part is the procedure does not expose your pet to radiation. It is particularly useful in diagnosing brain and spine problems by showing veterinarians the inside of an organ or tissue. Like the CT Scan, dogs must be under general anesthesia for the test.
While all of these tests have a purpose, they are not able to detect all diseases of the spine and brain. These are diseases that are only diagnosed by exclusion and veterinarians and pet guardians have to wait to see how a dog’s symptoms develop. One of these diseases is Degenerative Myelopathy. DM is a progressive disease of the spinal cord that begins with loss of coordination in the back legs and progresses to paralysis in about 6 months.
Please be sure to discuss all of these diagnostic tests and their risks thoroughly with your veterinarian before proceeding. We wish you the very best outcome if you and your dog are facing a spinal cord issue.