What are Spinal Cord Disorders?
The most common disease that brings about spinal cord problems in cats is feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). It is a surface related disease that affects segments of the spinal cord. FIP is often seen in young cats under the age of two. Lymphosarcoma is another common disorder of the spinal cord. It is a rapidly growing cancer that reduces spinal cord circulation. Intervertebral disc disease is the third most commonly occurring spinal cord disorder in cats. It is degenerative and it mainly affects the lumbar (lower portion) of the spine. Veterinary attention is necessary for any spinal cord disorder, as early detection can help save the life of an affected cat.
The spinal cord is a fragile group of nerves that extend from the brain and control nerve responses throughout the body. This cord is protected by vertebrae and discs that make up the spine. Any disease or issue that damages or affects the spinal cord can have a significant impact on bodily function. Spinal cord disorders can cause a number of disabilities in a cat. Severe trauma, such as being hit by a car, can damage the spinal cord. This may come with a host of other life-threatening injuries and blood loss, which may need to be treated first.
Symptoms of Spinal Cord Disorders in Cats
Progressed cases of spinal cord disorders produce very severe symptoms. If symptoms are mild, overall chance of recovery is better. Because spinal cord disorders stem from many different types of issues and injuries, symptoms from the underlying cause may also manifest. Symptoms of spinal cord damage include:
- Ataxia (uncontrolled body movements)
- Partial or full paralysis
- Granuloma tissue formations
- Head tremors
- Muscle spasms
- Behavioral changes
- Locking jaw
- Difficulty swallowing
- Eye problems
- Severe pain
Causes of Spinal Cord Disorders in Cats
Many different medical conditions can cause damage to the spinal cord. Issues can be present from birth or may come from an external source. Possible contributors to spinal cord disorders are listed below.
- Viral infection
- Bacterial infection
- Fungal infection
- Parasitic infestation
- Cancer or cancerous tumors
- Injury from trauma
- Birth defect
- Hereditary disorders
- Degenerative diseases
- Nutritional issues
- Vascular disease
- Feline leukemia virus (FeLV)
Diagnosis of Spinal Cord Disorders in Cats
Upon arriving at a veterinary clinic or animal hospital, you will need to provide your cat’s full medical history to the veterinarian. A physical examination will be completed to assess spinal problems and identify any other serious injuries needing attention. You will be asked about any possibility of your cat being exposed to chemicals. If trauma has taken place, you will need to relay all details about the event. The goal is to identify the underlying issue that is causing the spinal cord problems and to treat it if possible.
Blood work including a complete blood count and a biochemical profile can help to determine if cancer is present in the cat. Cerebrospinal fluid testing can help diagnose many spinal cord diseases. Urinalysis may be helpful for identifying infections. X-rays and ultrasounds will be required if tumors, fractures, or lesions are suspected in the cat. If any level of paralysis is seen, tests will be performed to monitor deep pain responses. These responses include head turning, attempted biting, or crying when certain parts of the body are prodded.
Treatment of Spinal Cord Disorders in Cats
Appropriate treatment will vary greatly depending on the underlying cause of spinal cord problems. Mild cases have the potential to be cured, while severe disorders may only be treated with supportive nursing care to the cat.
If bacterial infections are present in the cat, or of surgery has been performed, antibiotics will be prescribed to remove all harmful bacteria in the body. Prescriptions generally last from one to four weeks.
If fungal infection has been identified in the cat, antifungal medication can help to rid the body of the attacking fungi.
Antitoxins If tetanus is found to be the underlying cause of spinal cord issues, antitoxins can be administered in the early stages to effectively treat the disease.
A combination of immunosuppressive medications may be administered for an extended period of time to kill cancer cells in the body. This is often paired with the surgical removal of larger cancerous masses.
If excessive amounts of vitamin A from consuming too much liver have caused a spinal cord disorder, your vet may create a specialized diet to help with the issue. These diets can prevent further spinal cord damage but cannot reverse damage that has already occurred.
A cat suffering from fractured vertebrae can derive benefit from certain drug therapy if it is administered quickly.
Surgery may be necessary to properly realign the spine if it has been fractured. General anesthesia is required for this high risk surgery.
If cancer is present, surgery may be needed to remove tumors causing spinal cord damage. If the tumors are located inside of the cord, it is considered inoperable, however, if the tumors are located on the outside, prognosis improves. If the tumor is in an optimal location, full excision is possible.
Recovery of Spinal Cord Disorders in Cats
If the cat has undergone spinal surgery, it will need to be confined to a crate or cage for four to six weeks. Remove all possible inducers of stress to the cat. Monitor the incision site closely for signs of infection. If the spinal cord disorder produces incontinence in the cat, it is generally not reversible. Moving the litter box beside your cat’s bed may help with the issue.
If all feeling below the affected portion of the spinal cord has been lost, significant damage has happened to the nerves and the outlook is not positive. If respiratory paralysis occurs, the cat will die. In most severe cases of spinal cord disorder, overall prognosis is poor. If the cat is diagnosed with feline infectious peritonitis, euthanasia may be required, as there is no cure. Very mild spinal cord issues have the potential to be cured or, at the very least, prove to be manageable throughout the cat’s life.
Spinal Cord Disorders Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
I have a 4 year old female tabby cat who has been losing weight for some time and was found to have bad teeth which necessitated removal of some of these teeth. However when she was getting pre-op blood work she was found to have isolated anemia. Treatment with iron and doxycycline empirically for mycoplasma didn’t help much (Hb only improved to 8 from 7) and she has since developed worsening ataxia and urinary incontinence (which she seems unaware of). The vet has mentioned the differential which seems mostly grim but I was hoping for a second opinion...I’m not really able to afford a battery of testing at the moment sadly, and the vet offered that all the testing in the world might not give a diagnosis still. Any help is appreciated
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