What is Syringomyelia in Dogs?

What is Syringomyelia in Dogs?

No one ever wants to find out that their dog is sick, particularly with something serious as syringomyelia (SM). Whether this is the case or you’re looking for information on this sickness in dogs, you’ll find all you need to know about syringomyelia’s causes, symptoms, and treatment options. When it comes to your dog’s health, information is always key, after all.

Similar to in humans, syringomyelia in dogs is when there is a blockage that causes a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid at the top of the spinal cord, in the general neck area. The fluid flows into pockets, called syringes, and collects there over time, causing a varying amount of pain in your pooch. As you can probably guess, this is a serious health condition for your dog and it is one that will require treatment more often than not.

Below, you’ll learn about the causes, the symptoms, and the diagnosis of syringomyelia in dogs. You’ll also learn about possible treatment options and some general tips to help you keep your dog’s health in prime condition even in the face of a possible syringomyelia diagnosis.

What causes syringomyelia in dogs?

Truth be told, there is still a lot of research that needs to be done on the cause of syringomyelia in and of itself. However, the biggest leading cause is when a dog is born with what is called Chiari-like malformation (CM). This is a term that just means a dog’s breed is too big for the size of its skull. Since the back of the brain, containing the brain stem gets crowded, the spinal fluid isn’t able to flow properly and the obstruction causes for the syringes to be formed at the base of the skull.

While some breeds are more at risk of both CM and SM (more on that later), the most common link between a particular pup and developing syringomyelia is thought to be hereditary. If the biological parent (one or both) of your pup has CM or has SM, it’s more likely that your pup will also have this. 

What are the symptoms of syringomyelia in dogs?

If you’re feeling pretty panicked right now, you’re not alone. Without question, syringomyelia is definitely a scary disease in your pooch. If you’re wondering whether or not your own particular doggo has this, or you know that he is more at risk, you can watch for symptoms. Some of the most common ones are listed below.

Lots of pain noises when shifting position or being picked up

Most pet parents know that their dogs will whine, groan or yelp when they are in pain. If you notice that your dog does this when he is shifting position where his neck or head move, it could be a symptom.

Similarly, if you notice that your dog reacts with the same pained noises when you pick him up, this could also be a symptom to be aware of. This, too, is because the top of his spine is shifting uncomfortably. 

Strong and sudden dislike at being scratched or pet around the neck

Whether he’s always disliked being pet and scratched around the neck, or it seems like a sudden problem, it’s most likely because he’s feeling pain in that area. Sometimes he may grumble or protest. Other times, he may squirm away from the attention or even get up and physically remove himself from you.

Furious and frequent scratching at the neck

Most pet parents understandably think that a dog has fleas or an ear infection when he starts lots of scratching at his neck. In most cases, you could very well be right!  However, if your pooch is scratching at his neck more and more, and even more aggressively than he normally would, there could be something else going on, especially if it doesn’t go away after time or with treatment. 

Lack of interest in running and/or jumping

While some dog breeds can be naturally lazy couch potatoes, you may notice that your dog is okay to walk but doesn’t like running or jumping. A dog that is okay with even, steady walking but dislikes the jarring of running or jumping could very well be having an issue with neck pain. You’ll also notice that he may not opt to lift his head and neck up to look up at you when you’re talking to him.

Aggression or sudden dislike at being touched in general

If the syringomyelia is particularly painful for your dog, especially as he ages, you may notice that our dog no longer likes to be handled to be pet at all, unless it’s on the lower end of his back. The more severe it gets, the more you’ll find that he doesn’t want to receive any physical attention in his head, neck or upper back.

Sometimes syringomyelia doesn’t always have symptoms, though. In the syringes in the spinal cord are small and don’t interfere with the spinal cord themselves, your pooch may not necessarily be bothered with any symptoms.

How to diagnose syringomyelia in dogs

Proper diagnosis is key to helping keep your dog comfortable in case of having syringomyelia. Since it is thought to be rare, the testing process itself is pretty limited.

Currently, the only set way to diagnose syringomyelia in dogs is through an MRI. Dogs are normally sedated during an MRI to make sure that the vets and specialists can get a clear view of the spine. The MRI is designed to study the spine for signs of an abnormality in the skull size as well as any obvious syringes that may have formed. 

As technology progresses, there is hope in the future that specialists in dog genetics will be able to earmark dogs who have syringomyelia based specifically on genetic markers. This is similar to the testing for the “Alzheimer’s gene” that is still developing in the world of medicine. 

Can syringomyelia cause seizures in dogs?

In some cases, syringomyelia can cause seizures in dogs. This is most common in dogs where the syringomyelia is thought to be advanced or where it creating a lot of symptoms interfering with their day to day life. While seizures in dogs are not a symptom of syringomyelia itself, they do commonly go hand in hand, particularly in those dogs that are high risk (more on that later).

Also referred to as a fit or a faint, a seizure in a dog often shows up as the dog falling to the floor suddenly and laying there completely still with mild to moderate shaping (aka seizing). 

How common is syringomyelia in dogs?

If you need some positive news right about now, you’re in the right section!  For the most part, syringomyelia in dogs is thought to be very rare. Since those symptoms can often be attributed to many other harmless, normal reasons, you don’t need to immediately think that your pooch has this disease just because he growled when you scratched his neck. 

That being said, some breeds are thought to be more at risk of developing it. These include Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Griffon Bruxellois, Maltese and Chihuahua, amongst others. As well, any toy breed dog is thought to also be more at risk of potentially developing SM.

A toy dog breed is “created” when two runts from various litters are bred together. Since runts are often prone to health conditions due to development issues when in the womb, those health weaknesses are passed down to the puppies, creating more likelihood of SM and other serious health risks. While SM can develop in standard dog breeds, most moderate to severe cases are seen in toy dog breeds. 

How to tell if my dog has syringomyelia

If you are wondering whether your toy poodle could possibly have syringomyelia, especially if you think that he is showing some of the most common symptoms above, there are some things to do as your puppy ages. 

Since syringomyelia is basically undetectable (aside from hereditary markers in some cases) in a puppy, proper vet appointments and check-ups are especially important. The earlier that SM can be caught and diagnosed, the better quality of life that your dog can have. A vet’s up to date knowledge on your dog, in particular, will help them to spot symptoms earlier, especially if you are noting any changes in your dog’s behavior. 

How do you treat syringomyelia in dogs?

While the diagnosing may be difficult in terms of limited options as well as catching SM in the first place, you’ll be relieved to find out that there are several things you can consider for the treatment of syringomyelia in dogs both short- and long-term. Here are some of the best options that focus on the quality of life for your doggo. 

Anticonvulsant medications

In more severe cases where your dog is having problems with seizures as well as significant pain and discomfort in their neck and spine itself, medications to stop seizures are often used. Common options for prescription include Neurontin and Gabarone. 

Medications that reduce cerebrospinal fluid production

If your pet is dealing with a significant amount of pain to the point where it is having an effect on his quality of life, some vets will offer medications such as Prilosec and Fruidix, which will help reduce the production of cerebrospinal fluid. Since the pain is caused by a build-up in the sphinxes, it makes sense, in theory, that less fluid means less pain.

However, medications — both anticonvulsants as well as cerebrospinal fluid production inhibitors — are often not recommended for long term use. The results often find that these medications do not make a lot of difference in the comfort of the dog and they also have no shortage of side effects, including lethargy and serious stomach issues. 

Shunts and surgery

In many cases, especially if the dog is young with a lot of symptoms, surgery and the possible installation of a shunt is recommended. This highly specific surgery is very costly because it is not one that is done very often or by many vets. The surgery would be done to help ease the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid. In many cases, a shunt is installed to help make this easier and safer in the long-term.

Even in situations where the surgery is successful, a build-up of scar tissue can often lead to a lot of localized discomfort and this will create a whole new selection of symptoms. Quite often, the surgery may have to be done when a recurrence pops up and it also still leaves dogs with a significant amount not itching and/or pain in the area. 

How can I help my dog with syringomyelia?

If you’ve just recently learned that your dog does have syringomyelia, there is still plenty that you can do to help him out. Other than making sure that you consider your options for comfort in your pooch like above, there are some great options that you can do regularly that will help keep him comfortable. 

Proper and regular vet checks

Once you know that your dog is going to be living with syringomyelia, you will want to make sure that he has regular check-ups with the vets to make sure that you are staying on top of any developments in his syringes and, of course, allowing your vet to get a feel for how your pooch is doing on a more day to day basis. If possible, you may also want to start working with a specialist in syringomyelia in dogs, too, as they will also be able to help with more targeted expertise and even recommend cutting edge treatments as they become available.

Watch for symptoms

Remember that just because you find out your dog has SM doesn’t mean that he is going to be dealing with complications!  You may find that your pooch is totally asymptomatic and as happy as can be even with this diagnosis. Whatever the case, understanding what you’re up against can help you learn about symptoms and what ones to worry about in your pooch. The more that you know, the better that you can care for him if symptoms do pop up. 

Preventative physical therapy and good physical health

A healthy dog is always going to have a better chance of being strong and healthy. So, do what you can to keep him active and strong in both physical health as well as his overall health (including shots and immunizations). Sometimes, physical therapy can be used as a treatment for SM, so if you know that your dog has asymptomatic SM or is at risk of developing it, preventative physical therapy can be a huge help. It also helps him build muscle mass and improve circulation which will help a lot, too.

While syringomyelia is definitely a health condition in your pooch to take seriously, it isn’t a death sentence. You simply have to know what you’re up against and how to deal with it as quickly and painlessly as possible. This goes for both you and your pooch!

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