Christina Vitale, DVM, DACVIM (Neurology) performed spinal surgery on Lucy, a 12-year-old dachshund. Lucy recovered beautifully and is happier and more comfortable following the surgery.

With her bright eyes and wagging tail, you’d never guess that Lucy the 12-year-old Dachshund had recently had spinal surgery. Here she was, hamming it up for the camera with Dr. Christina Vitale, the SAGE Campbell neurologist and neurosurgeon who had performed her surgery.

February had been a different story. Lucy’s owners, SAGE surgeons Angela and Bill Banz, had noticed she was having neck and shoulder pain. She was on several medications, but they weren’t really working, and the Banz’ needed to look deeper to help Lucy.

An MRI confirmed that a ruptured disc in Lucy’s cervical spine was causing her pain. Dr. Vitale performed spinal surgery, and removed the disc material that was pushing on her spinal cord. Lucy did great, and she is back to normal and more comfortable now.

Dachshunds have a high predisposition to disc ruptures. It’s genetic. The same genetic markers that give an animal short legs can also change the composition of the discs, Dr. Vitale says. In all dogs, disc degeneration is part of the aging process. But with small breeds, particularly dachshund’s, disc degeneration starts at birth.

Collaborative Approach to Care

Disc surgeries are just one of the procedures that Dr. Vitale and SAGE’s Redwood City Neurologist Vivian Lau perform to help animals suffering with neurologic illnesses and injuries. Both doctors also perform spinal stabilizations, and they diagnose and treat brain and spinal cord tumors.

Symptoms of brain and spinal cord tumors

With brain and spinal cord tumors, Dr. Vitale performs the surgery to remove the tumor and then collaborates with Radiation Oncologist Dr. Lauren Quarterman and PetCure Oncology. Symptoms of brain tumors are diverse and can include seizures and disorientation, as well as weakness in the legs and poor coordination. Symptoms of spinal cord tumors are generally pain in the neck or back, weakness in one or more of the legs, and poor coordination.

Symptoms of congenital malformations

In most cases, animals will show signs of congenital malformations when they are six months or younger. As their bodies grow, these problems become more evident, Dr. Vitale says.  Symptoms are usually similar to those caused by other problems in the spinal cord; pain, weakness, and poor coordination.

“When the body develops normally, there isn’t too much motion of the spine,” she says. “The spine has mobility, but it is limited enough so it protects the spinal cord. When there is a malformation, the spinal bones are actually putting pressure on and injuring the spinal cord. With spinal stabilization surgery, we fuse the spine and use an implant to solidify the area where there is too much motion and that helps to reduce trauma to the spinal cord.”

Finding Answers to Puzzling Illnesses

Just as with humans, the animal brain and neurologic system are complex. Symptoms, like pain, poor coordination, and weakness in the legs, are similar whether an animal is suffering from a disc rupture, brain or spinal tumor, or congenital malformation.

Dr. Vitale does a lot of detective work each day, she says.

“The symptoms don’t always tell us exactly what’s wrong,” she says. “They point us to where we should look with the MRI to find the underlying cause.”

Dr. Vitale uses medical history, breed and age to help her find a solution.

Recently, an older dog came in through SAGE Campbell Emergency who was struggling to find her balance. She seemed to be getting progressively worse. Dr. Vitale suspected she either had a brain tumor, or she was suffering from a much more benign syndrome in older dogs that causes a sudden onset of vertigo (these two conditions can present in exactly the same way, but have very different outcomes). The dog’s owner agreed to have an MRI and to everyone’s relief, the test did not show a brain tumor.  With only some time and supportive care the prognosis for this pet to return to an excellent quality of life is very good.

“The brain and spinal cord are complicated organs,” Dr. Vitale says. “We assimilate the information we can get from the history provided by the family, we evaluate the neurologic examination results carefully to look for subtleties, and we utilize the advanced diagnostic tools that we are so fortunate to have at our fingertips, especially MRI.  With all of this data, we make our very best assessment and plan to achieve the most optimal outcome for the pets that we care for and their families.”