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This information is provided by Provet for educational purposes only.

You should seek the advice of your veterinarian if your pet is ill as only he or she can correctly advise on the diagnosis and recommend the treatment that is most appropriate for your pet.

When is it worth treating a dog or cat with a broken back - and when should euthanasia be performed ?

Dogs and cats are often the victims of serious trauma such as road traffic accidents or falling from heights. As a result they sometimes sustain a fracture or dislocation of the spine and a decision has to be made about whether to try to treat the animal, or whether to elect for euthanasia.

A rational decision about whether or not treatment should be given should be based on a full clinical evaluation by a veterinarian. There are three main types of damage :

  • Damage to the bone and soft tissue components (muscle, ligaments and tendons) of the spine
  • Damage to the nervous system (spinal cord or spinal nerves) which pass down and leave the spine.
  • Loss of function of major organs because of damage to the nervous system, for example paralysis of the limbs, loss of control of urination and loss of bowel control

Patients with severe injury to the spinal cord are at the greatest risk from life-threatening complications, and are the poorest candidates for successful treatment. Patients with irreversible loss of  major organ function (such as the bladder or bowels) are very difficult to look after and are antisocial. 

Loss of mobility due to paralysis of the hind legs - in itself-  may not be grounds for euthanasia. Many dogs and cats live an almost normal, pain-free existence with a pair of wheels to replace their hind leg function. Special carts have been designed for pets with hind leg paralysis and these are available world-wide. Providing these disabled animals have control over their urine and motions they are quite happy with their artificial rear-end transport !


Scooter              Jesse              Rowena            Willy 

Pictures of happy pets living with their disabilities in their carts courtesy of K9 Carts - why not visit their web sites (US) and   (UK)

Patients with no evidence of injury to the nervous system are at least risk from life-threatening complications, and are the best candidates for treatment.

Guidelines exist for veterinarians to assess the relative seriousness of back injuries, and following a full examination the likely prognosis can usually be predicted. However, in nature nothing is certain. Patients with an apparently  good prognosis based upon initial examination may not do as well as expected, and conversely - very occasionally - patients given a very poor prognosis make a miraculous recovery.  

There are other factors that might also influence a decision whether or not to proceed with treatment :

  • If major surgery is the treatment of choice the cost might be prohibitively expensive for owners who do not have pet insurance, or the means to pay for the treatment.
  • If the animal is very old, or has another serious disease such as cancer, it may not be worthwhile performing major surgery or embarking upon prolonged treatment and nursing care if the animal only has a short time to live.
  • Most serious back injury patients require careful nursing during the recovery period, and rehabilitation afterwards.  Unless the owners can commit to such an undertaking the likelihood of a successful and satisfactory outcome are greatly reduced.

In the final analysis it is the quality of life for the animal that should be the most important consideration, not simply prolonging life. Treating serious back injuries can be extremely rewarding ....but it can also be very disappointing. Everyone involved in the decision-making process should be realistic about the chances of success, avoid over-optimism and put the animals best interests first. Having decided to embark upon a course of treatment everyone must be prepared to change the approach to the case if there is clinical deterioration, or if unexpected complications occur.


Updated October 2013