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Special Wellness Feature

Spinal Health

by Dr. Greg Marsolais, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVS

lulu on beach

Lulu is a ten-year-old Corgi who developed symptoms of degenerative myelopathy when she was eight. She sees a holistic vet regularly and swims several times a week. She lives an active, joyous, pain-free life with the help of her devoted family and her wheels.

The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord. Large nerves exit the central nervous system to supply tone to muscles, which allow us (and our furry friends) to play Frisbee on the beach, eat treats, and participate in the daily activities of life. Although most people know how to help their pets stay fit and trim, few know how to keep the central nervous system healthy, or what to do when things go wrong.

First, it is important to acknowledge that brain and spinal disease happens. There are a wide array of diseases that can affect the brain and spinal cord. These can include degenerative conditions due to aging, ruptured disks, infections, or cancer. Early signs may include a change in the way that a pet walks, barks, or responds. Some conditions are so painful that many pets refuse their normal daily activities. As clinical signs progress, a pet may lose the ability to stand and walk. 

Second, early intervention is the key to successful treatment of brain and spinal cord disease. If you sense your pet is losing the ability to walk, or is demonstrating behavior that is not typical, consult your veterinarian. If your veterinarian believes your pet has brain or spinal cord disease, you will likely be referred to a specialist for treatment. 

Diagnosis of brain or spinal cord disease requires advanced imaging studies, such as an MRI, myelograms, or CT scans. Although certain diseases are treated with medications, others may require surgery. Generally, diseases that require surgery (like disk rupture) have an excellent success rate if treated early. Most procedures are designed to remove the compression on the spinal cord by removing a small window of surrounding bone of the spinal column. Most pets regain function quickly but may require several days of recovery in the hospital before discharge.

Finally, after surgery, pets require rehabilitation and rest at home. Massage and range-of-motion exercises are the hallmarks of rehabilitation. At home, your pet should be kept clean and dry, and comfortable on soft bedding. Tender loving care (“TLC”) is the most important part of recovery.  Once your pet has recovered, it is important to maintain the health of the spine and brain by keeping your pet’s body weight low and providing regular exercise.

Certain diseases follow a slow degenerative process. Most therapy is focused on keeping the remaining normal spinal cord tissue healthy through activity. The old adage “use it or lose it” is especially true for these patients. One of the most exciting new areas of veterinary medicine is rehabilitation. Non-traditional rehabilitation therapies such as laser and ultrasound treatments, aquatherapy, and acupuncture are gaining in popularity.

Unfortunately, some pets do not regain complete function after surgery and may remain unable to walk, or even to urinate and defecate. Quality of life should be assessed for these pets. If your pet is comfortable, yet unable to walk, a cart should be considered. Many pets are able to enjoy quality of life with the aid of a cart to enhance mobility.

Dr. Greg Marsolais is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons. He founded Pet Surgeons, Inc. and Pet Specialists, Inc. in 2008 and provides surgical expertise to the veterinarians of the Monterey Peninsula and surrounding communities. He is available to answer questions at gsmarsolais@gmail.com.


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