What is Short Spine Syndrome in Dogs?

If you’ve ever found yourself being scolded for hunching your back, spare a thought for the people who don’t have a choice in the matter. While you’re at it, spare a thought for the dogs born with Short Spine Syndrome, a condition that results in a shortened spine and a hunchbacked appearance. Thankfully, its incidence is extremely rare – as of 2020, only 30 dogs in the entire world are reported to have it. But what exactly is Short Spine Syndrome? Find out as we look further into the curious condition and meet some of the remarkable dogs living with it.

What is Short Spine Syndrome in Dogs?

Short Spine Syndrome is exactly what it says on the label. Dogs born with the condition have a spine that’s been, quite literally, shortened. As barkpost.com writes, all dogs born with Short Spine Syndrome share similar traits, including sloping backs, short, broad necks, rear legs that are longer than the front ones, elongated jaws and either no tails, docked tails, or shorter than normal tails. Typically, they will also be smaller in stature than dogs of the same breed. The condition is the result of severe compression of the vertebrae of the spinal column. The compression causes the vertebrae to remain in their cartilage form, rather than strengthening into bone. Some of the vertebrae can fuse together, leading to a hunchbacked appearance and a restriction in movement.

“The condition has many characteristic abnormalities, with the vertebrae remaining in a cartilage state instead of transitioning to bone. This leads to compression of the vertebrae and shortening of the length of the spinal column,” Dr. Steve J. Mehler, a staff surgeon at Hope Veterinary Specialists in PA explains to Pet MD. “This compression gives the appearance of the dog not having a neck.” “Typically, the lumbar spine slopes downward and the tail is often in a corkscrew. Because the limbs are normal length, the dog will appear compressed in nose-to-tail direction but maintain a normal height,” he adds.

How to Recognize a Dog with Short Spine Syndrome

Recognizing a dog with Short Spine Syndrome doesn’t take a veterinary degree. As well as resulting in a very apparent shortening of the spine, the condition can make a dog look like it’s missing a neck. If a dog with the condition wants to look behind them, they can’t simply turn their head like most dogs – they’ll need to turn their entire body instead. Their body will usually look very short in relation to their limbs (which aren’t affected by the condition), while their sloping back gives the appearance of a hunchback. Many dogs born with the condition have fewer ribs than normal, and most will have a stout, barrel-chested appearance.

How Does Short Spine Syndrome Affect Dogs?

Although dogs with Short Spine Syndrome will often live full, happy lives with normal life expectancy, the condition does make certain activities very challenging. A dog born with the condition is likely to experience difficulties in:

  • Sniffing or eating from the ground
  • Playing retrieval games like fetch
  • Turning their necks

The History of Short Spine Syndrome

As the thedailyresearch.com writes, Short Spine Syndrome is believed to have been around since at least the 17th century. Its earliest depiction in popular culture can be seen in the paintings of David Klocker Ehrenstrahl, whose subjects included a “monster of wolf and dog.” Looking at the paintings with hindsight, it’s easy to see from the creature’s shortened, sloping backs that the ‘monsters’ aren’t monsters at all, but rather dogs with Short Spine Syndrome. For the majority of their history, dogs with Short Spine Syndrome were considered a genetic phenomenon. It’s only in more recent years that experts have posited that the condition is more likely to be the result of intensive inbreeding. The inbreeding theory first gained traction after the publication of the veterinary textbook “Animal Genetics” in 1982. After looking into the specific instances of the condition in the Baboon dogs of De Boom in South Africa, the paper concluded that close proximity of the dogs led to inbreeding, which, in turn, gave rise to genetic conditions like Short Spine Syndrome.

Elaine Ostrander’s 2001 paper on the subject, “Genetics of the Dog”, developed the theory further. According to Ostrander’s research, female dogs born with the condition typically have longer heats than other dogs, and if they do manage to become pregnant (although it’s very rare that they can), they’ll typically only produce one puppy per litter. The problem has become more pronounced in recent years as breeders cross breed closely related dogs in the hope of producing litters with similar characteristics. Unfortunately, the habit has resulted in an increase in health problems and genetic abnormalities such as Short Spine Syndrome.

Meet the Dogs

Back in 2016, it was believed there were only around 14 dogs with the condition in the entire world. But then a little dog called Quasimodo went viral, and suddenly, more and more people started coming forward with their own Short Spine Syndrome stories. Well, we say more and more. So far, there are still only 30 known cases worldwide – which makes dogs like Cooper all the more extraordinary. Cooper was discovered abandoned at 2 months old near a puppy farm in Virginia. It’s believed he was abandoned after the breeders discovered his condition. Cooper was found in a dreadful state: he had a hernia, ear mites, and worms. But thanks to the efforts of rescue group Secondhand Hounds, he made a full recovery. Shortly afterward, he found his forever home and is now living happily with his new family.

Cuda the Pitbull was one of the first dogs with Short Spine Syndrome to become an online sensation. But there’s been many more since. Quaise the Great is a gorgeous German Shephard whose happy, easy-going personality hasn’t been affected one iota by his short stature. Then there’s Mojo, a beautiful spaniel crossbreed; Pig, a Chow crossbreed; and Cleo, a border collie mix. Despite the challenges of their condition and the fact that many had hard starts in life (Copper was by no means the only dog with Short Spine Syndrome to be abandoned), all the dogs are living healthy, happy lives. They might not be able to turn their heads, but they’re clearly finding plenty of fun ways to compensate.

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