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Spina bifida is a birth defect that affects not only people but also dogs and cats. During gestation, the vertebrae typically grow around the spinal cord. When they fail to complete this developmental step, the spinal cord is left exposed at birth. If not immediately obvious upon whelping or queening, symptoms of spina bifida will show up as soon as a puppy or kitten begins to walk. Weakness in the back legs and an unsteady gait may be evident, or the animal could be incontinent, depending on the severity of the defect. In some cases, surgery can make small repairs, such as preventing spinal cord exposure through the skin, but in most cases, there is no procedure that can completely reconstruct the vertebrae. As a result, spina bifida is often an extreme disorder with a bleak outcome.
Spina bifida is a congenital abnormality of the spine in which the vertebrae fail to develop normally. Depending on the severity of the defect, it can manifest as anything from a devastatingly malformed, exposed spinal cord to a wholly inconsequential, incidental finding observed only on X-rays and for which the patient requires no treatment.
The lumbar spine (lower back) is most commonly affected, though it’s possible for any part of the spine to be affected. Several adjacent vertebrae are usually involved, though very mild cases may affect only one vertebrae. Unfortunately, the mode of inheritance of this defect has not been determined. Other possible causes include exposure to drugs or toxins that cause birth defects, nutritional deficiencies and maternal stress during pregnancy.
Severely affected puppies and kittens are usually identified as spina bifida patients when they’re born –– that is, if their spinal cords are exposed. In these cases, the pets are predisposed to meningitis, or an inflammation of the covering of the spinal cord, which worsens the prognosis. Others, however, are flagged as potential candidates when they begin walking. The signs are usually associated with the location of the deformity within the spinal column. Hind limb weakness or a stumbling gait are common findings. Some patients may also experience urinary or fecal incontinence.
At this point, diagnosis is undertaken using basic radiographic (X-ray) techniques to demonstrate the incomplete vertebrae. Myelograms, or radiographic studies using dye, and CT scans may also be helpful in these instances.
The English Bulldog is the breed most commonly affected by spina bifida. Among cats, the tailless Manx is over-represented.
Severe cases of spinal disorders like spina bifida are considered untreatable. Pups and kittens are typically euthanized immediately upon diagnosis.
It may also be the case that no treatment is necessary, for example in those cases in which the deformity is detected incidentally upon routine radiography or X-rays undertaken for another issue altogether.
There is no known form of prevention beyond genetic counseling to recommend the sterilization of affected animals and their first-degree relatives.
This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.
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