I don’t know if they still do this in public schools, but I can still remember yearly checks for scoliosis in grade school. Our teachers would pull us aside one at a time to lift up the back of our shirts and check to make sure that our spines were free from abnormal curves. Maybe you remember these checks, too. Did you know that our four-legged family members can also have scoliosis?
Chances are that if one of your pets has scoliosis, you already know about it. That’s because most of the time, scoliosis in dogs and cats is congenital, meaning that it is present at birth or shows up sometime shortly thereafter.
Scoliosis is an abnormal position or curvature of the spine, and most often it is congenital, but occasionally, it is an acquired condition (think trauma). When scoliosis is acquired, it is likely to be progressive. Underlying causes for the abnormal curvature include:
- abnormally shaped vertebrae
- ligament abnormalities, leading to bending and instability
- insufficient muscle support around the vertebrae
When the spine curves abnormally, spinal cord compression can occur. Just as in conditions like intervertebral disk disease, when the spinal cord is compressed, pain and neurologic signs will result. Pets with scoliosis may have pain back pain, particularly around the part of the spine that is abnormally curved, and they may have neurologic deficits in their hind or front legs (or both).
Diagnosis of scoliosis is easily made by taking a plain x-ray of your pet. The abnormal curvature of the spine can be seen right away. Diagnosing neurologic involvement is a bit trickier, however, and will usually require the use of enhanced contrast x-rays. In these cases, a liquid contrast agent that shows up brightly on radiographs is injected into the space adjacent to the spinal column to highlight spinal compression.
Treatment will depend on how severe your pet’s signs are. Often, no treatment is needed. Or, if your pet has mild scoliosis, he can be treated conservatively with cage rest on days when he is sore. Chronic pain should be treated through the use of NSAIDs and other analgesics if necessary. More severe cases may need spinal decompression and/or spinal stabilization.
Luckily, scoliosis is rare, and even luckier, it often doesn’t cause any trouble when it is present. If you think your pet has a spine that’s curvier than normal but doesn’t have associated pain, you can mention it to your vet at your pet’s next appointment. However, if you begin to notice back pain or changes in gait, it should be addressed with your vet immediately.