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As someone who has typically had very long-lived dogs, I have frequently had to deal with canine spondylosis. The name of this condition sounds scary, but it’s actually quite manageable.
Canine spondylosis is similar to arthritis in that it is progressive, and cannot be cured. It occurs usually in older dogs, generally along the spine. It’s actually a way in which the dog’s body reacts to degenerating spinal disks – bone spurs begin to develop in order to close up the gaps between the disks. The problem is that although these bone spurs do a very good job of bridging the gaps, the process can lead to limited flexibility and a reduction in the range of motion.
Usually, by the time canine spondylosis is identified, the dog is coming toward the end of his life. Obviously, this has a sort of back-handed benefit in that the dog will most likely die, or need to be euthanized, for other reasons, and is not likely to suffer much from the condition.
As to suffering in general, spondylosis is not thought to be all that painful. Of course there are always exceptions, and in rare cases, canine spondylosis can be truly debilitating. Most of the time, though, the condition will cause only minor pain that can be easily managed with over-the-counter remedies that your vet can recommend.
Usually, the main symptom of canine spondylosis is that the dog will begin to limp. He might also appear to have difficulty with movement, and may adopt a gait that will cause the owner to wonder if perhaps the dog has a sore back.
As previously stated, with most dogs, spondylosis is simply a natural consequence of aging. It hardly ever occurs in younger dogs. When it does, it’s usually hereditary. Therefore, if you have a young dog that has developed spondylosis, and his parents also had the disorder at a young age, it would be best to neuter the dog to prevent the condition being passed on to further generations. This is because the condition will not go away, and will inevitably become worse.
With an old dog, the condition won’t have a lot of time to worsen. When it starts in a young dog, though, by the time the dog reaches old age, he could be in serious pain.
Canine spondylosis is also believed to be sometimes caused by repeated stress on the dog’s joints. In this regard, it can occur earlier in very active dogs. Conversely, spondylosis can develop in dogs that don’t get enough exercise. Other causes can include poor nutrition (which can prevent the bones and spinal disks from developing properly), environmental factors, and a suppressed immune system (see 16 Best Immune System Boosters for Dogs to learn ways to improve your dog’s resistance to various diseases and conditions).
Occasionally, spondylosis can create other problems. Again, though, this usually happens with dogs that are coming toward the end of their natural lifespan.
The most severe complication of canine spondylosis is ankylosis. This occurs when the bone spurs become so over-grown that all the bones in the spinal column end up fusing together. This is a very painful condition, and dogs that develop ankyloses will have a great deal of difficulty walking. Quick movements, like jumping, will be extremely painful (if even possible). Sadly, if x-rays reveal ankylosis in your dog’s spine, you may end up having to consider euthanasia sooner rather than later. Fortunately, ankylosis is rare.
Another complication (equally rare) is nerve compression. This is exactly what it sounds like – the bone spurs press down on the spinal nerves. With this complication, the dog’s movements will become stiff, usually in the hips. Walking can be difficult, and it may be impossible for the dog to go up and down stairs.
As I’ve already mentioned, pain medications can provide some relief, so ask your vet to recommend an appropriate remedy.
If the dog is overweight, then switch him over to a low-calorie dog food, or cut back on portions a bit, and make sure that he gets adequate exercise. If the dog is carrying a lot of extra weight, this increases pressure and stress on the spine and joints, and can exacerbate the condition. If you haven’t been in the habit of exercising your dog, start off slow, perhaps with a leisurely-paced 20-minute walk. Keep an eye out for signs of pain, and stop if the dog seems to be experiencing discomfort.
Swimming is a wonderful exercise for dogs with spondylosis, because the water supports the dog’s body and therefore doesn’t place a lot of pressure on the joints. If you have a backyard pool, that’s great, but if you don’t, you can probably find a park nearby with a lake or pond where your dog can swim. If you have a small dog, you can even let him swim in the bathtub!
Applying warmth is also a good treatment for canine spondylosis. Moist heat is best, and you can simply soak some towels in hot water and then apply them to your dog’s spine and hips. If you don’t like the idea of having water dripping, or are very sensitive to “wet dog smell,” you can always use hot water bottles. If you choose to go with a heating pad, keep it on low and don’t leave your dog unsupervised – the last thing you want is for him to chew through the cord!
Another great way of easing your dog’s discomfort using warmth is by buying him a heated dog bed. And even in the house, he might be more comfortable wearing a sweater.
Massage can also be very helpful when dealing with pain in your dog’s joints and back. For that matter, even dogs that don’t have pain often enjoy a good massage. Start off by using the palms of your hands to make small, circular motions over the dog’s back and hips. Don’t use a lot of pressure – you’re not trying for deep-muscle massage here, like the kind you might enjoy after a strenuous workout. It takes surprisingly little pressure to ease your dog’s pain.
Now, I really hope I don’t have to tell you this, but I like to err on the side of caution. Dogs are not meant to live outdoors. That said, in the warm months, I often leave the door to my house open at night, and sometimes, Janice and Leroy like to go out and sleep under the stars. The thing is, that’s their choice. If you have a dog with canine spondylosis, though, he shouldn’t be sleeping outside. The hard ground does not make a good bed for a dog with this kind of condition.
It’s not easy watching a dog get old. You know that you are coming to the end of the time that you have with him. It’s even harder when you need to accept that your dog is in pain.
Fortunately, although canine spondylosis is incurable and progressive, it can be treated. Be alert to signs of the condition in your aging dog, because as with many conditions, the sooner spondylosis is identified, the higher the likelihood of the dog responding well to treatment. In fact, if you catch it early and begin a course of therapy, there is a good chance that the condition may not progress much, and your dog will enjoy a good quality of life up until the end.