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Chiari Malformations in Dogs

Chiari malformations or Chairi-like malformations is a term used to describe a variety of neurological disorders or symptoms that are caused when the hollow portion of the occipital bone known as the posterior fossa does not develop properly.  Parts of the skull that create the craniocervical junction may also be affected due to this condition, including the occipital bone, the foramen magnum and the first two cervical vertebrae making up the spinal cord.

As a result…

The “underdeveloped” posterior fossa isn’t large enough to adequately house portions of your dog’s brain (mainly the brain stem, the cerebellum and parts of the spinal cord), causing portions of the affected dog’s brain to be compressed or “squished.”  And it is this compression that can, in some dogs create a wide variety of symptoms some of which can be very serious to your dog’s overall health and well-being.

Common symptoms associated with Chiari Malformations may include:

  • Neck pain and headaches,
  • Persistent scratching of the neck and shoulders,
  • “Air” scratching of the neck and shoulders,
  • Vision problems,
  • Difficulty walking or painful walking,
  • Loss of balance (ataxia),
  • Hearing loss,
  • Failure to thrive or meet developmental milestones.

That said however…

Some dogs suffering from Chiari malformations may not experience any symptoms.  It is believed that nearly 95% of all Cavalier King Charles Spaniels (AKA King Charles Spaniels) will suffer from Chiari-like malformations to some degree however only 25% of them will go on to experience any symptoms of the disease.

Because of this many researchers who initially believed that Chiari malformations were a scarce condition are now beginning to re-think this belief as more and more dogs seem be diagnosed with “symptom” free cases of Chiari-like malformations due to the increase in the availability of technology which can be used to screen for this condition.

Diagnosis and Treatment

In most cases, diagnosis of Chiari malformations will be made by your veterinarian based on the symptoms that they observe your dog demonstrating and also by testing your dog’s vision and reflexes.  The most telling sign your veterinarian will look for is a “persistent scratching” of the neck and shoulder area along with what many vets will call “air scratching.”  This is a behavior whereby your dog will attempt to scratch their neck but will “miss” and scratch the air alongside their face.

In some cases, your veterinarian may also request a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test performed so that the posterior fossa portion of your dog’s brain can be viewed.  However, the cost and its results won’t have any bearing on the prescribed treatment plan, so most vets will avoid taking an MRI when possible.

Which reminds us…

It’s essential for you, the reader, to understand that we here at IndulgeYourPet are not doctors, medical professionals or veterinarians.  All we are is a bunch of folks who are passionate about animals and like to take pet ownership very seriously.

This is why we choose to write about medical conditions that could affect the health of one’s pet so that we can stress just how important it is for anyone thinking about adopting an animal that this decision is an important one.

Because you agree to feed, house and love your pet, you also agree to take care of your animal if they ever get sick.

And guess what?

Pets get sick and injured all the time!  So, while we would love to talk about all the “fun” things about owning a pet, we also want to talk about some of the “crummy” things too so that “our” pet owners are the good kind.  The kind that are there for their animals in both good times and wrong.  Which brings us back to…

Treatment of Chiari malformations in dogs

When it comes to treating a dog diagnosed with Chiari malformations, it will come down to how “severe” the Chiari malformations are, whether or not your dog is also suffering from syringomyelia.

What’s syringomyelia?

Syringomyelia is a rare neurological disorder often associated with dogs suffering from Chiari malformations where the affected dog develops cysts within the spinal cord.

These “fluid-filled” cysts or syrinx will slowly expand and grow larger over time, creating increased pressure within the affected dog’s spinal cord, often causing these animals to develop pain in further neurological disorders as the dog ages.


As we’ve already stated, most dogs suffering from Chiari malformations will remain asymptomatic and likely go their entire lives without diagnosing their condition.  This is particularly true with the:

Due to their genetic makeup, dog breeds have a much higher risk of developing this condition.

Now for those…

For dogs who develop symptoms, treatment options will typically consist of prescribing medications that will help alleviate the symptoms or surgery.

Common medications that may be prescribed can include:

  • Analgesics or pain relievers used to minimize the neuropathic pain associated with this condition,
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs and steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs,
  • Anticonvulsant medications,
  • Antidepressants,
  • Etc, etc…

In extreme cases…

Your veterinarian may also recommend that you do undergo a surgical procedure designed to either:

  • Increase the size of the affected skull area:
  • Repair injured brain tissue areas: Duraplasty.
  • Or install a syringosubarachnoid shunt to help reduce the pressure created by the cerebrospinal fluid due to the developing cysts or syrinx within the spinal cord.

All of which will have their own set of unique risks associated with them.  The only true thing that all of these different surgical procedures will have in common is that they’re all going to be pretty expensive.

Which brings us…

The final point that we would like to make is this.  If you are considering becoming a pet owner, take a moment and find out what it would cost to purchase a pet insurance policy.  If you ever find yourself in a situation where your furry little loved one develops a severe medical issue, you won’t need to burden the cost of treating their condition alone.  Instead, you can rely on your insurance to help you pay for their care and spend more time focusing on what matters: the care and well-being of your loved one!

For more information about how much a pet insurance policy would cost, we recommend you check out our article titled: Best Pet Insurance Companies.

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