Experts estimate that more than 12,000 spinal cord injuries (SCI) occur every year in people and that more than a quarter of a million Americans are now living with some form of SCI. These injuries are not limited to humans, but happen frequently in our pets as well.
In people, damage to the spine often occurs due to a traumatic event, such as a car accidents, severe falls or even sports activities. Such injuries happen most often to younger men.
In dogs, not only are there a variety of accidents that cause SCI, but many breeds of dogs, can develop a bulging or full prolapse of the discs that are located between the vertebrae. This bulge puts damaging pressure on the spinal cord, causing pain and even paralysis. Any sort of pressure, trauma or tearing of the spinal cord is truly an emergency situation.
In both human and veterinary medicine new treatments are focused in an attempt to block certain biochemical pathways after injury to save mobility. But, until now, many of these treatments have been unsuccessful. Consequently, the human may spend the rest of their life in a wheelchair while many pets are euthanized due to costs or the owner’s inability to care for a pet who is unable to walk.
Dr. Jonathon Levine, a veterinarian and resident in neurology at Texas A & M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine says “about 3% of all hospitalized cases in veterinary medicine were due to disc related spinal cord injuries.” In certain breeds, especially dachshunds and other long bodied, short legged dogs, the incidence of SCI due to disc problems approaches 25%.
In some situations, especially traumatic events, like a dog being struck by a car, the onset is sudden and easily recognizable. But in other cases, the signs are much more subtle. Dogs with slow developing disc problems often show weakness in the limbs, abnormal gait, incoordination and pain across the back. Without treatment, these pets may eventually lose the ability to walk.
New advances in diagnostic technology, including increased availability of even more powerful MRI units for pets, have enabled veterinarians to more accurately pinpoint the cause of spinal injuries. But, the fact still remains that far too many dogs and people suffering lasting serious consequences, from spinal cord injuries.
In conjunction with the University of California Medical School, Dr. Levine and the team at Texas A & M are exploring a new drug that may protect the nervous system after spinal cord injury. Certain enzymes in the nervous system can actually destroy vital components of the blood-spinal cord barrier and of myelin, the protective covering over nerves. This current research looks at a new compound that may block these destructive enzymes. “We are hoping that this new drug will protect the nervous system shortly after injury, improve the outcome and help more dogs walk in these cases.” says Levine.
The importance of this study cannot be overstated. This is the first veterinary clinical trial that has been funded by the National Institutes of Health. In addition, because of the potential benefits to both dogs and people, the Department of Defense has also provided grant money to continue the research. Many of the quarter of a million people living with spinal cord injuries are soldiers wounded while in war zones.
Pet owners, especially those with specific breeds prone to back problems need to be aware of the subtitle signs of potential problems. A veterinarian should see any dog that cries out during play, has difficulty navigating stairs or that has any sort of uncoordinated gait. Pets that are overweight are more prone to spinal issues, so keeping your pet trim is one way to minimize the risks. In some cases, owners may receive a referral to a veterinary neurologist or surgeon for advanced care.