Hemivertebrae in Dogs


Having and raising a healthy dog is a combination of good breeding, good care and good luck. Sometimes, even with the best of care, a dog develops a hereditary disease that can affect the dog in any number of ways. Many pet owners choose pet insurance to help them pay for veterinary care so they can provide the dog with the best of care if or when a health problem arises. One example is hemivertebrae in dogs.

What is Hemivertebrae in Dogs?

Hemivertebrae is a birth defect in dogs where the vertebrae are wedged-shaped and underdeveloped on one side. This abnormality in the vertebrae can cause a compressed spinal cord, which can lead to intense pain for the dog. The fact that this deformed vertebra is so near to the tail is a big reason why certain breeds, like Pugs have curly tails. The vertebrae of the dog’s spine appear to develop abnormally and twist itself into wedge across the spine.

When the abnormally shaped vertebrae are directly in the tail, it’s not that serious of a problem. In fact, it can actually go unnoticed when it’s in the tail. However, when the dog has hemivertebrae in other areas of the spinal column, it can cause great pain for the dog. In severe cases, the dog may not even be able to walk. Whether the condition causes problems for the dog is dependent on these factors:

  • If the spinal cord is compressed
  • Which part of the spinal column is impacted
  • If it’s causing a weak spot in the spinal column

What Dogs are Susceptible?

As is the case with most hereditary diseases, certain dog breeds are more susceptible for hemivertebrae, and included in this group are dogs bred for this condition in the form of a screw tail. Dogs most susceptible for hemivertebrae include:

  • French Bulldog
  • English Bulldog
  • Pug
  • Puggle
  • Boston Terrier

Some dogs, such as the German shepherd and German shorthaired pointer, can inherit hemivertebrae as an autosomal recessive trait. What this means is that these particular dog breeds must have two copies of the defective gene to actually develop the disease.

How is it Diagnosed?

The majority of dogs who suffer from hemivertebrae don’t display any clinical signs, or the signs they do have are mild. Some symptoms of the disease that might be found in the dog include urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, weakness in the hind limbs and pain. The dog may also react as though he’s in pain if you put any pressure on the top of the middle of his back. The disease is generally diagnosed through an x-ray.

The veterinarian will also use more advanced technologies such as MRIs, CT scans or myelograms to determine if there is spinal cord compression. Myelography is the most common method of diagnosing compression of the spinal cord. This radiographic technique involves injecting a dye to determine how and where the compression is occurring.

Occasionally, the disease is diagnosed accidentally when x-rays or scans are taken for a different purpose. The first signs of hemivertebrae are usually found in puppies and are usually mild symptoms that get progressively worse until the dog’s spine stops growing, which is usually about nine months to a year old.

How to Treat Hemivertebrae in Dogs

The treatment for hemivertebrae depends mostly on the severity of the symptoms. Dogs suffering from mild symptoms stemming from spinal cord compression associated with hemivertebrae generally do well with anti-inflammatory drugs and rest. Dogs with moderate to severe symptoms usually require a delicate surgical procedure called a hemilaminectomy, which must be performed by a veterinary neurologist or a board-certified veterinary surgeon.

The purpose of the hemilaminectomy is to relieve the compression on the spinal cord. The surgery involves removing the part of the intervertebral disc that’s compressed against the spinal column and then stabilizing the spine. The treatment and especially the surgical procedure can be very expensive, but many insurance companies cover these procedures.

Just the imaging tests alone can run from $1,000 to $3,000, and that’s without the surgery. If the dog needs the surgery, this can cost an additional $1,500 to $4,000 if it’s limited to one area of the spinal cord. If there is decompression in more than one area, the price will be even higher.

How to Care for a Dog with Hemivertebrae

The care that a dog with hemivertebrae requires depends on the severity of the symptoms and how far the disease has progressed. Dogs with just mild symptoms generally do well with anti-inflammatory drugs and rest. Dogs with more severe cases generally have to have the surgical procedure. Dogs that have undergone the decompressive surgery usually regain full use of their limbs and can lead a normal life.

What to Do if You Suspect Hemivertebrae

If you have a dog or puppy that is displaying signs of hemivertebrae, the first thing to do is get the dog to a veterinarian for testing. The earlier the testing, the earlier the treatment and the better the dog will do overall. Luckily for dog owners, many pet insurance companies cover treatment for hemivertebrae.

There really is no way to prevent a dog from developing or being born with hemivertebrae. Because it’s a hereditary disease, the best method of prevention is through responsible breeding. Eliminating dogs that carry the gene from the breeding pool is recommended. Dogs that normally have the “twist tail” should also be eliminated from breeding.