Atlantoaxial Luxation in Dogs: A Closer Look Understanding Atlantoaxial Luxation in Canines

Atlantoaxial Luxation in Dogs: A Closer Look

Atlantoaxial luxation (AAL) is a condition that affects the stability of the first two vertebrae in the cervical spine of dogs, the atlas, and the axis. This article will take a closer look at the causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention of Atlantoaxial luxation in dogs.

Atlantoaxial luxation is also referred to as AAL. It is a disorder that affects the atlantoaxial joint in dogs.  This condition occurs when the ligaments that support these two vertebrae become weak or ruptured, resulting in the dislocation of the atlas bone. AAL is most commonly seen in small and toy-breed dogs and can result in a range of clinical signs, including neck pain, stiffness, and weakness. In severe cases, AAL can lead to spinal cord compression and paralysis. 

In this article, we will take a closer look at the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of AAL. 


AAL in dogs can arise from subluxation in dogs which can be from congenital causes or acquired causes. Congenital atlantoaxial subluxation in dogs, often leading to AAL, is related to abnormalities present from birth. These can include:

  • Genetic predisposition: Certain dog breeds, such as Toy Poodle, Chihuahua, Boston Terrier, and Yorkshire Terrier, are genetically predisposed to developing AAL.

  • Abnormal development: Some dogs may be born with abnormalities in the development of the atlantoaxial joint that predispose them to AAL.

Causes that are acquired: These causes of AAL in dogs are associated with events that take place after birth which may consist of:


  • Trauma: An abrupt blow to the neck or other types of trauma can make the atlantoaxial joint unstable, which can result in AAL.

  • Infections: Infections like meningitis or Lyme disease can inflame and make the atlantoaxial joint unstable, which can result in AAL.

  • Degenerative modifications: As dogs age, the tissues supporting the atlantoaxial joint may deteriorate, resulting in instability and AAL.

  • Tumors: AAL can be brought on by tumors that damage the spinal cord or the tissues nearby and result in instability of the atlantoaxial joint.

  • Surgery-related complications: Trauma to or instability of the atlantoaxial joint during procedures involving the neck or spinal cord can, in rare instances, result in AAL.


Depending on how severe the illness is, different dogs may have different AAL symptoms. Here are a few typical signs in an atlantoaxial luxation dog:

  • Neck Pain: Dogs with AAL may display symptoms of neck pain, such as aversion to head movement, sensitivity to touch, or discomfort when the neck is moved.

  • Stiffness or restricted range of motion: Dogs with AAL may exhibit stiffness or discomfort while moving because of a reduced neck range of motion.

  • Lameness or weakness: Dogs with AAL may experience lameness or weakness in their limbs as a result of spinal cord compression or nerve injury.

  • Loss of coordination: Due to spinal cord compression or nerve loss, dogs with AAL may seem unsteady or shaky.

  • Breathing problems: In extreme instances of AAL, the atlantoaxial joint's instability can result in airway compression, which can induce breathing problems or even respiratory failure.

  • Behavioral changes: Dogs with AAL may exhibit altered behavior, such as a reduction in activity level or resistance to play or physical exercise.


The symptoms of atlantoaxial luxation (AAL) in dogs may be vague or overlap with similar conditions like atlantoaxial subluxation in dogs or other conditions, as such,  diagnosing this ailment can be difficult. Therefore, to analyze the symptoms of the dog and determine the severity of AAL, a thorough physical and neurological examination is required. The following diagnostic tests may be performed to identify AAL in canines:

  • Radiography

  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

  • Computed Tomography (CT)

  • Neurological evaluation

  • Blood tests

  • Genetic testing

Treatment and Management Options

The severity of the problem and the existence of clinical indications determine how Atlantoaxial luxation (AAL) is treated in dogs. Here are some atlantoaxial instability in dogs treatment options:

  • Conservative Management: Conservative therapy may be indicated in mild cases of AAL, which involves rest, tight activity restriction, and the use of pain medications and anti-inflammatory drugs to minimize pain and inflammation.

  • Halo-vest immobilization: This is a non-surgical treatment approach for AAL that involves the use of a halo-vest device. The gadget is linked to the dog's skull and torso to immobilize the dog's head and neck, allowing the joint to recover.

  • Surgery: Surgery may be required to stabilize the joint and stop future spinal cord damage in more severe cases of AAL. The most often performed surgical techniques for canine AAL include dorsal laminectomy, atlantoaxial transarticular screw fixation, and ventral stabilization.

  • Post-operative management: After surgery, the dog must have all activity strictly limited and must have its rehabilitation closely watched. Acupuncture and physical therapy may also be suggested to help the dog recuperate.

Preventive Tips

Although there is no surefire way to stop AAL from happening, there are some steps that can be performed to lower the risk of the condition emerging:

  • Genetic Testing:  Breeders can identify breeding dogs that are carriers of the gene that causes AAL via genetic testing. The frequency of AAL can be decreased by removing carriers from breeding programs.

  • Selective breeding: Breeders should choose to breed dogs devoid of clinical AAL symptoms and have no family history of the disease.

  • Avoid Neck Trauma: Predisposed dogs for AAL should refrain from neck trauma-causing activities, including jumping off of things or roughhousing with other dogs.

  • Monitoring: Owners of dogs that are prone to AAL should keep an eye out for any symptoms, such as stiffness or neck pain, and seek quick medical attention if they appear.

  • Nutritionally sound care: Providing dogs with a balanced and appropriate diet for dogs will help maintain their general health and lower their chance of developing certain illnesses, such as AAL.

Even while it is not always feasible to stop AAL from happening, taking these precautions can help lower the likelihood that the illness will manifest and enhance dogs' general health.

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