By Maggie Vandenberg, DVM, DACVIM (Neurology)
Spinal disease and emergencies occur frequently in our pet dogs and cats. They can occur due to inherited spinal disorders (i.e. intervertebral disc disease), acquired disorders (i.e. inflammatory disease, infection), trauma, or congenital spinal disorders (i.e. caudal occipital malformation, atlantoaxial subluxation). Some disorders occur slowly but some can occur very rapidly and the consequences can be quite devastating. It is extremely important to recognize the key signs that indicate that your pet needs immediate assessment and care.
The spine is a collective term for both the vertebral column and the spinal cord. The vertebral column is composed of both bone and soft tissue. The bones of the spine are called vertebrae and they are connected to one another by both joints and intervertebral discs. The main purpose of the discs and joints is to maintain spinal stability, allow flexion and extension of the spine, and provide shock absorption. The spinal cord itself is soft tissue and is very fragile. It is located within the vertebral column and is protected by it. The spinal cord is a network of nerves and nerve cell bodies that mainly carry information to and from the brain.
Clinical signs of spinal disease include: Difficulty walking/jumping, paresis (weakness in the limbs), plegia (no movement in the limbs), walking on the top of the toes, worn toenails, back/neck pain, decreased to absent tail movement, incontinence (no control of urine or bowel excretions), and loss of feeling in the affected limb(s). It is very common to confuse joint or muscle disease (orthopedic disease) with neurologic disease. Sometimes an animal can have both orthopedic and neurologic disease at the same time. Signs that are always neurologic in origin are: plegia, scuffing of the paws, and loss of feeling in the affected limb(s). Signs of a neurologic emergency include acute paralysis (unable to walk within 12 hours) or inconsolable discomfort. If an animal is acutely paralyzed then a veterinary neurologist should be consulted as the prognosis will depend on immediate therapeutic intervention.
The most common reason for acute paresis/plegia in our dogs and cats is a condition called intervertebral disc disease (IVDD). Intervertebral disc disease is a degenerative condition of the intervertebral discs. With IVDD the disc herniates and/or protrudes into the canal and damages the spinal cord. More importantly the degenerative disc causes continued compression of the spinal cord.
If your animal has acutely lost movement and feeling, he or she should be put into a crate to prevent further trauma and brought to a neurologist for immediate assessment. Types of spinal imaging include: radiographs, myelography, magnetic resonance imaging, computed tomography. The imaging recommended will be dependent on the suspected underlying cause. Magnetic resonance imaging is the preferred diagnostic when nerve root and/or spinal cord damage is assumed. Other diagnostics are often performed but can be less diagnostic. Spinal decompressive surgery may be indicated to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord and give the animal the best possible chance of recovery. There can be up to 95-97% surgical success with cases of IVDD.
AMVS is a 24-hour veterinary facility providing specialty internal medicine, surgery, neurology, oncology, emergency and critical care, physical rehabilitation, pain management, and blood bank services for pets. They are located in Longmont at 104 S. Main St. For more information, go to www.AspenMeadowVet.com.