What is Spine Degeneration?
Spine degeneration is typically associated with aging and primarily affects cats older than 10 years. This condition should not be confused with diskospondylitis, which is an inflammatory disease of the spine. Spondylosis deformans is not inflammatory.
Spine degeneration – known by its technical name spondylosis deformans – is a condition in which osteophytes (bone spurs) form near the edges of the backbones. This is due to the degeneration of the intervertebral discs, which protect individual vertebrae. The function of osteophytes is to restore stability to the compromised spine, and they appear alongside any degenerative spinal condition. Osteophytes may be present in one area of the spine, but can form across many vertebrae. In cats, these spurs typically form on the upper end of the spine, but can also form on the lower back.
Symptoms of Spine Degeneration in Cats
In most cases, cats with degenerating spines won’t show any symptoms unless they are in pain. This will usually occur if an osteophyte is pressing on a nerve or on the spinal cord. In any case, seek immediate veterinary attention if you notice any of the following symptoms in your older cat:
- Reduced flexibility in the spine
- Yowling when touched on the back
Causes of Spine Degeneration in Cats
The main cause of spine degeneration in cats is aging. The degeneration of intervertebral discs is usually seen as a natural part of aging. The body’s response is to form osteophytes near the affected area(s), which will help maintain spinal stability. If multiple intervertebral discs are affected, the osteophytes may form “bridges”, though this is not common in cats.
In some cases, the formation of osteophytes in the spine may occur as a result of trauma, infection, birth defects, or complications from spinal surgery. However, these specific underlying causes are generally not seen as spondylosis deformans, which is considered a secondary condition of aging.
Another suspected cause of spine degeneration is an excess intake of vitamin A, a side effect of a diet comprised mainly of fresh liver. This is also associated with osteophytes that form “bridges” between vertebrae. However, not enough research has been conducted to confirm this as a cause of spine degeneration.
Diagnosis of Spine Degeneration in Cats
Since most cats affected by this spinal degeneration don’t exhibit symptoms, the vet will diagnose spine degeneration by taking an X-ray of the spine. You should inform your vet if your cat has had any previous spinal problems, including trauma or surgery.
Since osteophytes can form as a result of any spinal degenerative condition – including those that are inflammatory – the vet may need to take more than one x-ray to confirm spondylosis deformans. If your cat is experiencing extreme suffering from the condition or if your vet is unable to make a definitive diagnosis, you may be referred to an orthopedic specialist.
Treatment of Spine Degeneration in Cats
There is no completely effective treatment method for spondylosis deformans. Treatment will largely depend on whether or not your cat is experiencing pain from the condition. If there is no pain or symptoms, treatment is generally not required.
If your cat is experiencing pain, your vet may prescribe general pain relief medication, typically NSAIDs. Do not administer any over-the-counter NSAID pain relievers made for human use to your cat unless specifically instructed by your vet. If your cat is overweight or obese, your vet may recommend dietary adjustments in order to increase mobility and reduce stiffness.
In serious cases in which the osteophytes are pressing into the spinal cord, surgery may be necessary to remove the osteophytes. However, in most cases, osteophytes will reappear as part of the body’s natural response to spine degeneration, even with surgical treatment.
Recovery of Spine Degeneration in Cats
Prognosis for spondylosis deformans depends on the individual cat and whether or not there is any pain associated with the condition. Some cats may experience a decrease in mobility as a side effect of the condition. However, for most cats that don’t experience pain, spine degeneration may not affect them at all. In fact, spondylosis deformans is often discovered during x-rays taken for other reasons.
As the cat grows older and spine degeneration continues, the cat may have trouble getting up and down the stairs or jumping. Consult your vet as soon as possible if the condition starts to worsen. Since there is no cure for aging, treatment is more likely to be palliative – to ease the cat’s pain and symptoms – rather than to cure the underlying cause.
Always follow your vet’s post-treatment instructions carefully. Your vet will be able to advise a customized recovery plan based on your cat’s specific needs. The vet may schedule follow-up appointments if the condition is considered serious.