What is a hemilaminectomy?

Also known as decompression surgery, a hemilaminectomy is a type of surgery commonly used to manage injuries and spinal conditions such as intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), which can cause spinal compression in dogs and cats.

Pressure on the spinal cord or nerves results in:

  • Muscle pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Urination issues
  • Paralysis

The hemilaminectomy reduces this pressure by removing part of one side of a vertebra, which allows removal of the extruded disc material from the canal.

What happens during a hemilaminectomy?

An incision is made above the vertebral foramen to access the vertebra, creating a window through which the disc material can be removed. To do this, a ventral slot (a hole) is drilled under the disc, from where the problematic bone is removed.

A hemilaminectomy can take between one and three hours, depending on the complexity of the procedure, and it can be carried out in combination with another form of disc surgery known as fenestration surgery.

How successful is a hemilaminectomy?

The operation is 90% successful in dogs with acute disc herniations who can still feel their toes. However, if the dog has been unwell for weeks or months and the spinal cord is chronically compressed or has atrophied (shrunk), it’s unlikely that it will make a full recovery.

Hemilaminectomy is also very effective in cats, and post-op, affected animals start to regain motor functions that had been reduced by pressure on the nerves.

There is some risk, however: the spine might not heal correctly (if aftercare is inefficient or the cat exercises too quickly after its surgery), so it’s essential that close, thorough assessment and monitoring is carried out post-op. There’s also a very minor risk to the spinal cord – which can cause permanent damage – during surgery.

How long does recovery take?

Most dogs take around six to eight weeks to recover and be able to walk again, but the time can vary. Some get better quickly, while others, particularly if they’re suffering with chronic disc disease (type two), can take longer to recover. And sadly, for some, there’s no improvement.

Cats typically take around two months to recover.

Post-op, it’s really important that the spinal cord has a chance to recover slowly. That means no:

  • Running
  • Jumping
  • Climbing stairs
  • Playing with other animals
  • Leaping on or off furniture


What happens during recovery?

Once your dog or cat comes out of surgery, they’ll be given peace and quiet to come round from the anaesthetic. They’ll also be given painkillers such as analgesics, and will be looked after by dedicated nurses.

Their surgeon will assess them before a physiotherapist designs a special physiotherapy and rehabilitation programme that takes your pet’s specific needs into account. This can begin as soon as your dog or cat has recovered from surgery, and it is a vital part of their recovery process to make sure they don’t suffer:

  • Stiffness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Contracture
  • Reduced joint movement

vets treating dog
You’ll be taught these important physiotherapy techniques and exercises so your pet can carry on their convalescence at home, and providing they are comfortable, moving normally and can urinate – and the vet and physiotherapist are satisfied with their progress – they can go home.

It’s really important that your pet gets plenty of rest and that the wound stays clean and undisturbed, and it will be necessary to limit their movement so that their spine isn’t put under any undue stress. As their healing progresses, you will be able to gradually increase the amount of exercise they have.

You will need to make follow-up appointments with your vet so that they can make sure the wound is healing properly, and administer painkillers or antibiotics as necessary.

If your pet has undergone a hemilaminectomy and you’d like some advice, we’re happy to help. If you’re a referring vet, start a referral case today.