Common complications in canine spinal surgery - Veterinary Practice
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Common complications in canine spinal surgery

What does the evidence say about the prevalence of complications associated with spinal surgery in dogs?

Complications are broadly defined as outcomes that differ from the norm and can be described as general, specific and technical. Common general complications following spinal surgery are gastrointestinal complications and urinary tract infections. Specific complications of spinal surgery include: haematomas, surgical site infections, nerve root injury, dural tears and progressive myelomalacia. Technical complications are generally secondary to implant placement, dislocation of the implant or instrument-related.

In a large prospective study on morbidity and mortality of major adult spinal surgery (Street et al., 2012), 87 percent of patients had at least one documented complication:

  • Prolonged hospitalisation: 39 percent
  • Post-operative complications: 73.5 percent
  • Surgical complications: 10.5 percent
  • Death: 1.5 percent

Gastrointestinal effects

In a study by Dowdle and colleagues (Dowdle et al., 2003), endoscopy was used to determine the prevalence of subclinical gastroduodenal ulceration in 30 Dachshunds undergoing decompressive surgery for acute intervertebral disc prolapse. An overall prevalence of 76 percent was calculated. Ulcerogenic medication administered prior to admission did not appear to influence the prevalence.

Urinary tract infection

Urinary tract infection (UTI) is a common complication in dogs with acute intervertebral disc extrusion (IVDE). The prevalence for development of UTI in 25 dogs treated surgically has been evaluated. In one study (Olby et al., 2010), presence of UTI over the three-month period was correlated to potential risk factors. Ten dogs (38 percent) developed 12 UTIs over the three-month period, with the majority occurring between the first and sixth week. Sixty percent of the UTIs were occult; haematuria in the absence of pyuria or UTI was a common finding in the perioperative period. Sex, breed and ambulatory status influenced the risk of developing a UTI. Females, Dachshunds and paraplegic dogs were at higher risk.

FIGURE 1 (A,B and C)

Surgical site infection

The surgical site infection (SSI) rate in dogs undergoing
hemilaminectomies or laminectomies for thoracolumbar disc herniation or
lumbosacral disease, without use of perioperative antibiotics, has been
retrospectively evaluated during a two-year period (Dyall and Schmökel,
2018). All incisional complications within 30 days were recorded and
divided into superficial, deep (Figure 1) or organ/
space infections. This research study included 154 consecutive
hemilaminectomy and laminectomy procedures. One superficial wound
infection was recorded and treated with antimicrobials. Overall, the SSI
rate was 0.6 percent, while the expected SSI rate in clean operative
wounds in dogs and cats is 2.0 to 4.8 percent. The SSI rate in human
spinal surgery is 0.7 to 4.3 percent.


Progressive myelomalacia (PMM; Figures 2 and 3) is a catastrophic disease associated with acute IVDE. The onset and progression of clinical signs of PMM has been examined retrospectively in 51 dogs, 18 with histopathologically confirmed PMM and 33 presumptively diagnosed based on clinical signs (Olby et al., 2017). Five dogs had two sites of disc extrusion, giving 56 extrusions in total. Data on nature and progression of signs were extracted. Twenty-four of 51 dogs were Dachshunds. T12–T13 was the most common site of disc extrusion (12 of 56), and 18 mid-to-caudal lumbar discs (between L3 and L6) were affected.


Onset of PMM signs ranged from present at first evaluation (17/51) to
five days after presentation, with 25 of 51 cases developing signs
within 48 hours. Progression of signs from onset of PMM to euthanasia or
death, excluding seven cases euthanised at presentation, ranged from 1
to 13 days, with 23 being euthanised within three days. Nonspecific
systemic signs were documented in 30 of 51 dogs.

majority of dogs developing myelomalacia do so within two days of
presentation, with euthanasia commonly occurring within another three
days. The onset can be delayed up to five days after presentation, with
progression to euthanasia taking as long as two weeks. Mid-tocaudal
lumbar discs might be associated with an increased risk of PMM.

Neurological deterioration

Early post-operative neurological deterioration is a wellknown complication following dorsal cervical laminectomies and hemilaminectomies in dogs. Medical records of 100 dogs that had undergone a cervical dorsal laminectomy or hemilaminectomy were assessed retrospectively in one study to evaluate potential risk factors (Taylor-Brown et al., 2015). Multiple variables were evaluated and the outcome measures were neurological status immediately following surgery and duration of hospitalisation.

Diagnoses included osseous associated cervical spondylomyelopathy (OACSM), and acute intervertebral disc extrusion in 72 percent of the dogs. Overall, 54 percent were neurologically worse 48 hours post-operatively. Statistical analysis identified four factors significantly related to early post-operative neurological outcome. Diagnoses of OACSM or meningioma were considered the strongest variables to predict early deterioration, followed by higher neurological grade before surgery and longer surgery time.

This information can aid in the management of expectations of clinical colleagues and owners with dogs undergoing spinal surgical procedures. The use of prophylactic anti-ulcer medication in spinal surgery patients is suggested. Dogs with thoracolumbar IVDE should be routinely monitored for UTI with urine culture regardless of urinalysis results. The low incidence of SSI suggested reconsideration of routine perioperative antibiotic prophylaxis in dogs undergoing laminectomy procedures.

Lorenzo Golini

Lorenzo Golini, DVM, MSc, Dip ECVN, MRCVS, is an RCVS specialist in Veterinary Neurology and has completed residency training in Neurology and Neurosurgery at the University of Zurich. He holds the European Diploma in Veterinary Neurology and has a masters degree in Behavioural Medicine.

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Luca Motta

Luca Motta, DVM (Hons), Dip ECVN, MRCVS, graduated in 2007 from the University of Perugia. After moving to England, he completed an internship programme in Small Animal Medicine and Surgery, and began a European College of Veterinary Neurology (ECVN) approved residency. Luca was awarded the ECVN Diploma in 2012.

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Massimo Mariscoli

Massimo Mariscoli, DVM, Dip ECVN, MRCVS, graduated from the University of Bologna in 1990. After completing a three-year residency programme in Veterinary Neurology and Neurosurgery at the University of Bern, Massimo passed the Diploma of the European College of Veterinary Neurology.

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