What is Fracture of the Spine?
A cat’s spine is made up of 30 small bones or vertebrae, plus more for the tail, which fit together to house and protect the spinal cord. A fracture of the spine involves damage or breaks to the individual bones, which can put pressure on the the spine causing pain or even paralysis. This is a serious condition that requires emergency stabilization if more serious complications such as loss of mobility or bladder control are to be avoided.
A fractured spine involves damage to the bones of the backbone that protect the spinal cord, which, if severe, can result in paralysis.
Symptoms of Fracture of the Spine in Cats
Fractured bones are painful, and more specific symptoms depend on where the injury is (such as neck, chest, or lower back) and the pressure on the spinal cord. In addition, damage is often the result of trauma, and so other injuries may be present.
Signs of Trauma
- Bleeding wounds
- Scuff injuries to the skin
- Heavy or rapid breathing
- Weakness and collapse
- Fractures of the limbs or jaw
- Attempting to hide
- Aggressive behavior when approached
- Abnormal posture
- Standing with the head down
- Unnaturally arched back
Impaired Nerve Function
- Inability to walk
- Dragging the back legs
- Urinary or fecal incontinence
Causes of Fracture of the Spine in Cats
Bone fractures rarely occur spontaneously and are usually the result of trauma. The exception is certain bone cancers which weaken the bone, but these are rare.
- Falling from a height
- Collision with a motor vehicle
- Dog bites
- Gunshot injuries
- Running head first into a door or wall
- Kicks or physical abuse
- Bone cancer
Diagnosis of Fracture of the Spine in Cats
A cat in pain, showing signs of trauma, and with areas of numbness should be assumed to have spinal damage until proven otherwise. This means it is necessary to take care when moving the cat, so as not to cause further damage.
The vet assesses the cat for shock and will provide immediate supportive care with intravenous fluids and pain relief if required. The vet examines the cat, paying particular attention to nerve function and any areas of poor sensation on the skin or limbs. This narrows down areas of the spine for investigation.
Imaging is key to diagnosis, with x-rays being most cost effective. Taking great care to handle the spine gently, two views of each area of the spine are taken. This pinpoints areas of damage and maps out bone displacement. For greater detail of bone injuries, a CT scan may be performed, whilst an MRI scan is most useful for assessing the spinal cord.
This provides vital information as to the nature of the injury (fracture, dislocation, or cancer), how severe the injury is, and the implications for repair and recovery.
Blood tests may be required to check for organ damage in the case of trauma, and to look for signs of metabolic disease which could weaken the bones.
Treatment of Fracture of the Spine in Cats
The vet administers pain relief and supportive care in order to stabilize the patient. A major worry is the movement of bone pieces and further damage the spinal cord, so the cat may be sedated or immobilized on a bodyboard.
The vet may repeat neurological exams at regular intervals in order to check the patient's status. For those cases that are rapidly deteriorating, have severe spinal injuries, nerve damage, and poor chances of recovery, euthanasia may be the most humane option.
For the remainder, either strict rest or surgical stabilization are required. For minor fractures involving parts of the vertebra that don't impact on the spinal cord, then a body brace and cage rest for four to six weeks may be all that's necessary.
However, surgical intervention is often needed. The surgeon will assess the best way to stabilize the fracture from options including:
- Cement polymers
- External fixation devices
Surgery on the spine requires a high skill level, and complications can include poor alignment of the bone pieces, swelling putting pressure on the spine, infection, and movement of the implant. After successful surgery it is essential the owner keeps their pet confined, to reduce the risk of implants loosening or moving out of place.
In addition, skin wounds may need debridement and suturing. The vet may also suggest neutering intact animals, in order to reduce the future risk of wandering and getting into accidents.
Recovery of Fracture of the Spine in Cats
The cat must be confined until the bones are healed. This may take anywhere from one to four months. During this time it may be necessary to nurse the cat and prevent them getting pressure sores or to manually express their bladder.
Skin sutures from surgery are removed approximately 10 - 14 days later. The vet will perform follow up x-rays after about one month, to check that the position of any implants and that healing has started. Depending on how the cat responds clinically, final radiographs may be needed before the cat is signed off. Metal implants are usually left in place and only removed if they cause a problem.