"All about syringomyelia in dogs
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"All about syringomyelia in dogs

Dogs
Health & Safety

Syringomyelia is a canine condition that has been under the spotlight a lot in recent years after it was highlighted in the BBC’s Pedigree Dogs Exposed documentary in 2008. It is known to be a relatively common condition in the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel dog, which is considered to have been caused due to unrealistic and harmful breeding practices in the production of pedigree dogs.

However, syringomyelia does not just affect pedigree Cavalier King Charles Spaniel dogs, and dogs of all breeds and types can potentially be affected by the condition. Syringomyelia is a non-contagious condition caused by conformation rather than a disease, and is often inherited due to breeding a line of dogs whose conformation is particularly prone to its development.

If you own or are considering buying a dog or puppy of any breed or type, particularly a smaller breed of pedigree dog, it is important to be aware of syringomyelia, and to know what signs and symptoms to look out for.

What is syringomyelia?

Syringomyelia occurs when a fluid-filled sac develops on the spinal cord, which is usually due to a malformation of the bones of the skull and the brain. The condition is congenital, and much more likely to occur in small dogs than larger ones, due to the smaller size of the skull and conformation in general. Syringomyelia is a chronic condition, and degenerates progressively in affected dogs. It often causes intense pain and headaches in affected dogs, as well as stiffness in the neck, back and limbs. It can also cause weakness and numbness in the limbs, and a range of other potential affects including loss of bladder or bowel control, an inability to regulate the body temperature, and overheating.

Syringomyelia is a highly painful and unpleasant condition for dogs, and often leads to constant debilitating pain and other side effects. Dogs that suffer from syringomyelia should of course not be bred from, as the condition is usually passed on to the resultant offspring.

The symptoms of syringomyelia in dogs

Syringomyelia often presents with a range of fairly clear symptoms, and it is important to understand what to look out for.

Dogs suffering from syringomyelia are often in pain, and this will manifest in a variety of ways. Sensitivity and unwillingness to be touched around the head and neck, or reluctance to be collared or put on a lead are common, and sometimes accompanied by defensive aggression when approached in these areas, as the dog will be aware that being touched in the affected areas increases the ongoing pain of the condition.

The pain may be worse in extremes of hot and cold, or during and after sleep, as the normal sleeping position of the dog can exacerbate the pain. A dog that sleeps with its head up for no apparent reason may be a potential sufferer of syringomyelia.

Dogs with syringomyelia will sometimes spend a lot of time pawing at or scratching around the head in neck, sometimes only on one side. In advanced and severe cases of the condition, trouble walking, weakness or tremors in the limbs, deafness, and nerve paralysis may also occur.

Testing for syringomyelia

If your vet suspects syringomyelia or if you ask your vet to run health tests for the condition, they will usually need to run an MRI scan on the dog in question to return a definitive result, although sometimes other diagnostic tools can be utilised to reach a diagnosis of syringomyelia by a method of deduction.

MRI scanning allows the vet to examine the structure of the spine and skull for any abnormalities that might obstruct the normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid, leading to syringomyelia’s signature fluid filled sac placing pressure on the spine.

MRI scanning can also indicate borderline cases of syringomyelia, which may or may not develop into the condition, and can be used to assess whether or not a dog is viable to breed from without a heightened risk of the condition developing in their subsequent offspring.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanning is expensive, and an MRI scanner is not a piece of equipment that most practices have on-site, so your dog may need to be referred to a specialist clinic or centre for a definitive assessment, which can be costly.

Treating syringomyelia in dogs

There are four common treatment methods to address syringomyelia in dogs and relieve the condition, and the appropriate course of treatment to be undertaken will vary on a case-by-case basis.

  • Surgical treatment of syringomyelia can be used to remove the hypoplastic occipital bone, which eases pressure on the skull and spine. Surgical intervention is usually only indicated in severe and highly painful cases of syringomyelia, and the eventual results can be variable, with the risk of recurrence later on in life still being a possibility.
  • Corticosteroids may be prescribed to decrease the fluid build up of syringomyelia and reduce the associated pain, although long-term treatment with corticosteroids can be accompanied by a range of side effects of their own.
  • Non-steroidal painkillers may be administered as an alternative to steroids to keep the pain under control, sometimes accompanied with anticonvulsant drugs depending on the symptoms of the condition. This treatment protocol is usually only indicated in more minor presentations of the condition, but is often highly effective.
  • Medications to reduce spinal fluid production can be used, leading to a decreasing likelihood of fluid sacs developing and causing pressure on the spine. Medications of this type are known as CSF reducing drugs, or “cerebrospinal fluid” reducing drugs.

The prognosis for dogs with syringomyelia

Syringomyelia cannot be fully cured, although the condition can sometimes be suitably managed. Syringomyelia can have a marked impact on the quality of life of the dog in question in pronounced cases, and sometimes, the likelihood of successful treatment when measured against the pain levels and wellbeing of the dog mean that treatment is not viable, and badly affected dogs are sometimes humanely euthanized.

Dogs suffering from or from a breed line prone to syringomyelia should not be bred from, to avoid passing on this painful and unpleasant condition to future generations of dogs.

If you have any concerns about syringomyelia in your own dog or any dog you are thinking of buying, or have any questions about the condition, talk to your vet for more advice.

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