Spina Bifida


Spina bifida is an inherited congenital abnormality of the spine in which the vertebrae fail to form normally. This leads to the formation of incomplete vertebrae in the developing embryo and, depending on the severity of the defect, anything from a completely malformed, exposed spinal cord to a wholly inconsequential, incidental finding.

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 prove to affect only one. Unfortunately, it’s mode of inheritance has not been determined.

Symptoms and Identification

Severely affected puppies and kittens are usually flagged as possibly suffering spina bifida when they begin walking. Hind limb weakness or a stumbling gait are also possible findings. Some patients’ conditions may even include urinary or fecal incontinence.

At this point, diagnosis is undertaken using basic radiographic (X-ray) techniques to demonstrate the incomplete vertebrae.

Affected Breeds

The English Bulldog is the breed most commonly affected by spina bifida. Among cats, the tail-less Manx is overrepresented.


Severe cases of spinal disorders like this one are considered untreatable. Pups and kittens are typically euthanized immediately upon diagnosis. Mild cases can often be treated with reconstructive surgery. A board certified veterinary surgeon is strongly recommended for this procedure.

It may also be the case that no treatment is necessary, for example in those cases where the deformity is detected incidentally upon routine radiography or X-rays undertaken for another issue altogether.

Veterinary Cost

The cost of surgical treatment of relatively mild cases can be very expensive depending on the degree to which the deformity requires reconstruction. $1,500 to $5,000 would be considered a typical expense.


There is no known form of prevention beyond genetic counseling to recommend the sterilization of affected animals and their first degree relatives. Indeed, entire lines should perhaps be abandoned when a disease this devastating arises. And ideally, tail-lessness should be eliminated from breed standards to minimize its possible inheritance.


LeCouteur, R.A., Child, G. 1995. Diseases of the spinal cord. In S.J. Ettinger and E.C. Feldman (eds.) Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine, pp. 629-696. W.B. Saunders Co., Toronto.

"Congenital and Inherited Anomalies of the Nervous System: Small Animals". The Merck Veterinary Manual. 2006. Retrieved 2007-02-04.

Canine Inherited Disorders Database