If the spinal cord is unaffected by the defective bone fusion that is called spina bifida, the dog probably will never have symptoms of neurological abnormalities, and the condition actually may never be diagnosed. However, when the spinal cord pushes out through the gap in the abnormal vertebrae, the dog’s rear-end ambulation and control of its urinary and rectal function typically are adversely affected.
A veterinarian should be consulted when a young puppy is not able to walk normally as compared with the abilities of its littermates. The veterinarian will take a history of the puppy’s environment and development and will perform thorough physical and neurological examinations. She may or may not be able to localize which areas of the spine are affected based upon the results of those examinations. Additionally, a miminum data base of blood work (a complete blood count and serum biochemistry profile) and a urinalysis are almost always advised to assess the puppy’s overall health. This is especially important before heavy sedation or general anesthesia is administered to facilitate a more in-depth neurological examination. An electrocardiogram (ECG) to evaluate heart health, and a thyroid panel to evaluate thyroid gland function, may also be recommended.
Spina bifida normally can be definitively diagnosed with simple radiographs (X-rays). Often, it is discovered incidentally when thoracic (chest), abdominal or hip X-rays are taken for some unrelated reason. Radiographs usually will reveal the anatomical defect in the upper parts of affected vertebrae. Computed tomography (CT scan) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are available in some specialty clinics and at veterinary teaching hospitals; these can be helpful to pinpoint the precise location and the extent of bony and soft tissue abnormalities in dogs with spina bifida. A number of other advanced laboratory and electrodiagnostic tests, such as myelography and cerebrospinal fluid analysis, are available if the veterinarian thinks that they may be helpful in a given case.
It is important for owners to remember that spina bifida may or may not cause any discomfort or noticeable signs in affected animals. If the spinal cord does not protrude from the opening in the unfused vertebrae, the disorder may never be diagnosed and may never need any sort of treatment or medical management.