Could your dog have a spinal tumor? They are more common than you think, especially in large breed dogs. It was one of the diagnoses my veterinarian considered for Sophie when she became ill. Tumors in the spine can cause hind end weakness and changes in the way a dog walks. So, when Sophie showed these symptoms, our vet decided to test for it.
The veterinarian started Sophie on a “prednisone trial” to see if her symptoms got better while she was on the medication. Prednisone is a steroid that is commonly prescribed to reduce inflammation. And because tumors increase inflammation, we hoped to see an improvement in Sophie’s wobbly hind legs.
Our plan was to send her for a MRI, if there was even the slightest change in her symptoms.
Unfortunately, there was no improvement with the prednisone and we discontinued the drug. But I remember hearing the scary terminology about a tumor and trying to prepare myself for the worst. That’s why I think it’s important for every pet owner to know the facts about spinal tumors. It is better to be prepared for a potential health problem than to have it take you by surprise.
What are canine spinal cord tumors?
There are four different types of spinal tumors in dogs. The two most common are:
- Extradural tumors – These grow outside the spinal cord and cause compression and discomfort for dogs. They are the most common and account for 50% of all spinal tumors.
- Intradural-extramedullary tumors – These occur within the spinal cord, typically on the covering of the nerves. They account for 30% of tumors.
The two less common spinal tumors are:
- Intramedullary tumors –This form of tumor grows in the cells that support and insulate the central nervous system. They account for 15% of tumors in the spine.
- Peripheral nerve tumors – These tumors are the rarest and occur in the nerve roots of the spine. They account for only 5% of all spinal tumors.
Spinal cord tumors are classified as: Primary, which means they originate in the spine. And Secondary tumors that start in another part of the body but have spread to the spine.
Which dogs are prone to spinal tumors?
Spinal cord tumors are unfortunately quite common in dogs. Typically, dogs are middle-aged and around 6-years-old, but some dogs develop tumors as early as 3-5 years of age. Spinal tumors are seen most often in medium and large breed canines.
What are the signs & symptoms?
Tumors in the spinal often grow slowly and without any pain or symptoms until they have caused long-term problems. It generally takes several months until dogs show any signs of neurological problems. Tumors can be malignant (cancerous) or benign (noncancerous), but each can cause damage to the spine.
Symptoms depend on the location of the tumor. Here are general signs owners need to know:
- Changes in gait – This can include limping or an unsteady walk.
- Urinary pain or bladder and fecal incontinence.
- Partial or total paralysis – This can include weakness in the back or front legs.
- Neck and back pain – Dogs show this with a reluctance to lift their head or by hunching their back.
- Loss of balance or coordination.
How do veterinarians diagnose a spine tumor?
If a tumor is suspected, your veterinarian will probably start with a Myelogram for your dog. This is a type of x-ray that injects a contrast material or dye into the spine to determine where a tumor is located. If a tumor is found, a MRI or CT scan will be ordered for your dog. This test gives your veterinarian information about the size the tumor and if it can be reached by surgery.
Your veterinarian needs to know the exact location of the tumor, its shape, how it is growing and what it is doing to your dog’s spine.
Blood tests may also be ordered to see if there are elevated levels of proteins and white blood cells. This test gives information as to whether your dog is fighting an infection or inflammation.
What pet owners should know
Your veterinarian will determine if your dog should undergo surgery to remove the tumor. Surgery is most often prescribed for dogs with extradural and intradural-extramedullary spinal tumors.
The deciding factors are: the number of tumors, how hard they are to reach, your dog’s neurological symptoms and how well your dog will tolerate the surgery.
Primary tumors that begin in or on the spine have the best results with surgery. Tumors that form as a result of cancer that has metastasized from another part of the body do not respond as well.
Other treatment options include: corticosteroids (prednisone) to reduce spinal compression and radiation treatments. Radiation therapy is a relatively new treatment, but studies have found that when it is combined with surgery, it can extend a dog’s life from between 11 and 23 months.
There are also holistic therapies such dietary supplements to boost a dog’s immune system.
The prognosis for dogs with spinal tumors
Sadly, the outcome for dogs with spinal cord tumors is poor. Most of the tumors are not treatable. The majority of dogs have a survival rate of less than 6 months.
As a pet parent, it is important to consider your dog’s well-being and comfort at this time. Work with your veterinarian to find ways to reduce any pain your dog is experiencing. And ask about the techniques you should know to care for your pup at home.
By being as knowledgeable as possible about spinal tumors, you can show your love and dedication for your treasured fur kid.
Note: Many thanks to Britten Beaver for organizing the technical research for this post.