Eric was only 11 months old but had been suffering periodically with episodes of neck pain for around 3 months. This was bad enough to make him scream in pain. He’d been to his local vet to be checked over and had even had some X-rays taken, which showed nothing abnormal. Things came to a head in March 2022, when he started screaming in severe pain and was suddenly unable to walk. Although it was the weekend, this turn for the worse meant that Eric had to be treated as promptly as possible and he was sent all the way from his home in Wales to HSR to be examined by the specialist on call.
Eric was severely painful when he arrived, though it was clear that there was more to his inability to walk than a simple reluctance to do so. Neurological assessment showed that he had very weak leg movements in all four legs, though with one side of this body slightly more severely affected. This indicated a problem affecting the spinal cord in the upper to mid-part of his neck.
The best way assess the spinal cord is an MRI scan, which shows the tissues around the spine – and the spinal cord itself – in far more detail than simple X-rays. This was the best way forward for Eric and his condition was felt severe enough to require a scan the same day. This showed a pinch-point between the first two bones of the spinal column – the atlas and the axis – with severe bruising of the spinal cord at this point. This represents atlantoaxial subluxation and is caused when this region of the neck develops abnormally, allowing a greater range of movement between the two bones, with this instability putting Eric at risk of damage to the spinal cord and nerves in this region. This often causes intermittent pain but in severe cases the spinal cord is damaged to the extent that dogs can be paralysed.
Although some dogs can get better with a period of rest, painkillers and sometimes using a neck brace, Eric’s recurrent problems and his profound weakness meant that surgery was the best option. Precisely how to stabilise the bones and allow the spinal cord to recover is a thorny problem. Affected dogs are small, there are several delicate structures in the area – including the spinal cord and some major blood vessels running alongside the spine – and any fixation needs to strong enough to keep the problem in check for the rest of his life. This leaves very little margin for error.