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A blocked blood vessel can cause a stroke-like event in the spinal cord in dogs. This is called a Fibrocartilaginous Embolism (FCE). An embolism is usually the result of a clot in the bloodstream that blocks blood flow. This is also the case with FCE, but here the blockage is created by a piece of fibrous tissue from inside the dog’s vertebral disk. Disks provide cushioning between the vertebrae, while still allowing for the extensive range of motion that is necessary in the spine. Vertebral disks are made of fibrous material on the outside with a softer gelatin-like inside. If a piece of fibrocartilaginous material escapes from the disk, it can lodge itself near the spinal cord and block necessary blood vessels. Improper blood flow limits the functionality of the spinal cord. Depending on the placement of the material, FCE can cause paralysis in different areas of the body. In about 50% of cases, the back legs are affected. Paralysis is commonly asymmetrical so one side of the body may be more extreme than the other. Veterinarians don’t know what causes FCE. It happens frequently during vigorous exercise; one study found that 61% of dogs with FCE experienced the condition during physical activity. Symptoms have a very sudden onset. Dogs often yelp in pain and fall down. After the first few moments, they don’t experience pain which can help to set this condition apart from other spinal injuries. There is no treatment for FCE. After the first 24 hours, neurological symptoms do not get any worse and many dogs start to improve. It can take weeks or months for dogs to regain their range of motion. Some dogs may have a permanent disability such as paralysis in the back legs. This depends on the location of the embolism and the extent to which the nerves were permanently damaged.
If a blood vessel in the spine becomes blocked it can cause a stroke-like embolism in dogs. Veterinarians call this a fibrocartilaginous embolism. It often happens suddenly during exercise. After the first attack, dogs usually experience painless paralysis in the back legs or other parts of the body.
These are the symptoms you might see in a dog with FCE.
Veterinarians haven’t been able to identify different types of FCE. Versions of the disease have been noted in combination with hyperlipidemia in Miniature Schnauzers and hypothyroidism in Shetland Sheepdogs. It is believed that these spinal embolisms may be caused by circulating lipids rather than fibrocartilaginous material, but at this point, there is no way to ascertain this for certain.
Veterinarians don’t know what causes FCE. It is more common in giant breeds of dogs. It rarely happens in chondrodystrophic breeds because these dogs have more calcified disks. Most dogs with FCE are between 3 and 7 years old.
The veterinarian will evaluate your dog’s symptoms. Neurological paralysis with no sign of pain is often indicative of FCE, especially in middle-aged, large breed dogs. X-rays of the spine will be needed to rule out fracture or herniated disks. This is important since these condition can be treated with surgery while FCE cannot.
An MRI is the best method for definitively diagnosing FCE because it has a much higher level of detail than an X-ray. Areas of edema (increased fluid) will be visible around the embolism so the veterinarian will be able to locate the exact placement. The veterinarian may be able to give you a general idea of how likely your dog is to recover based on where the FCE is located.
There is no treatment for FCE. Some veterinarians give corticosteroids in the first few hours, however, there is no definitive proof that this treatment is effective, and there are some negative side effects. Dogs should be laid out on soft bedding and rotated every few hours to prevent bed sores. After 24 to 48 hours, neurological symptoms often start to improve spontaneously as new blood vessels form and clear out the obstruction. This will depend on how much permanent damage to the nervous system was sustained; in about 74% of cases, dogs do show significant improvement.
As your dog gets better the veterinarian may recommend physical therapy to help regain motor skills and strength. Non-weight bearing exercise, like a water treadmill, can be particularly effective. Neurological progression stops about three weeks after the incident, although muscle strength may go on improving for several months.
Many dogs regain their motor skill and make a full recovery from FCE. The problem doesn’t usually recur, so, if your dog recovers, it is unlikely he will have further problems.
Dogs that sustain permanent neurological damage may need significant help to manage this condition. Rear wheels and dog wheelchairs can help with hind leg paralysis. When your dog is lying down, he will need to be turned to prevent bed sores and skin breakdown. Moisturizers and skin creams may be prescribed by the veterinarian. Do not use zinc-oxide based creams on pets as these are toxic when ingested. Many dogs lose control over their urine and bowel movements. Dog diapers may be necessary and you may also need to help your dog empty his bladder with a catheter. The veterinarian will advise you about how to do this as well as recommend any necessary adaptive equipment. Frequent bathing will be necessary to avoid odor and maintain a healthy state of hygiene.
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1 found helpful
My dog had a spinal stroke, his back legs are paralyzed but he can move his tail. Is that a sign of anything? How will we know if he’s able to use his urinary tract and bowels?
Jan. 26, 2018
Dr. Michele K. DVM
Thank you for your email. Without seeing Cooper, I can't comment on what might be going on with him, but if he isn't able to use his back legs, he should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible to start him on any appropriate anti-inflammatory medications. They'll be able to assess his nerve function and let you know what his chances of recovery are. If he had a trauma or embolus to his spinal column, the location of the injury will dictate which nerves work and which ones don't. I hope that he is able to recover use of his back end.
Jan. 26, 2018
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