Cauda equina syndrome is prevalent in some of the larger dog breeds, such as German shepherds, Labradors and boxers, who are at risk of either being born with a congenital defect that leads to the development of the syndrome in the early years of life, or developing it as a result of another disease, such as chronic spinal inflammation. You must consult a vet for a definitive diagnosis.
Development of Spinal Problems
In pups with a congenital defect, cauda equina typically develops when the dog is between 3 and 8 years of age. Dogs without the congenital disposition generally show symptoms when they're around 6 to 7 years. Males are more likely to acquire the syndrome, but there is no gender prevalence in pups with the congenital condition. The affected area involves the nerves leading to the back legs, tail, bladder and rectum. These nerves exit the end of the spinal column and look like a horse's tail, hence the name "cauda equina," Latin for "horse's tail." The bones surrounding these nerves may either develop abnormally or another disease, such as spinal arthritis, may cause a deformity in this area of the spine. The result is compression of the caudal nerves. This in itself causes inflammation of the nerves. Another of its potential causes is an infection of the spine that causes inflammation.
Inflammatory Infections and Similar Symptoms
Diskospondylitis is caused by a bacterial or fungal infection that leads to degeneration of the intervertebral disks in the lumbar spine. This inflammatory condition can lead to cauda equina syndrome. Ankylosing spondylosis is another form of spinal inflammation that affects the caudal nerves. This is caused by bony growths that compress the nerves. There are a number of other conditions with very similar symptoms to cauda equina. Myasthenia gravis is fairly common in the same breeds that present with cauda equina. Dogs with myelopathy and myopathy, degenerative diseases of the spinal cord and the muscles, also present with cauda equina symptoms. Polyarthritis, hip dysplasia and cruciate ligament rupture are other potential causes of stiffness when walking, lameness and pain.
Signs of Cauda Equina
The number of conditions with similar symptoms makes a veterinary diagnosis vital. The first sign of cauda equina syndrome is usually weakness in the hind legs; this may be intermittent or continuous. Symptoms of lameness progress as the condition worsens, if undiagnosed and untreated. You may also notice that a dog with the syndrome has a choppy walk rather than a smooth stride. The dog may yelp for no visible reason, or he may cry with pain if you rub the area across his lower spine. In later stages of the disease, the dog has trouble controlling his bladder and bowels, plus he will lose the ability to wag or raise his tail.
If a chronic inflammatory disease is the cause of the cauda equina syndrome, your vet needs to diagnose and treat both. Initially, your veterinarian may recommend reducing the dog's daily exercise and may prescribe a course of anti-inflammatories or cortisone, depending on the severity of the condition. However, medication is not a long-term solution and only provides some temporary relief. Michigan Veterinary Specialists' website suggests that only 50 percent of dogs respond to medication and that the rest require surgery. This involves a procedure called a laminectomy, in which the spine is opened to relieve the compression. The surgeon will also remove the bulging disk and thickened ligaments and fuse the spine if it is unstable.
- The Merck Veterinary Manual: Inflammatory Disorders of The Peripheral Nerve
- Michigan Veterinary Specialists: Cauda Equina Syndrome
- Blackwell's Five-Minute Veterinary Consult; Larry P. Tilley and Francis W.K. Smith Jr.
- UC Davis Veterinary Medicine: Myasthenia Gravis
- Journal of Veterinary Medicine: Canine Diskospondylitis
- Canine Massage Therapy Centre: Spondylosis
Based in London, Eleanor McKenzie has been writing lifestyle-related books and articles since 1998. Her articles have appeared in the "Palm Beach Times" and she is the author of numerous books published by Hamlyn U.K., including "Healing Reiki" and "Pilates System." She holds a Master of Arts in informational studies from London University.