One of the most important parts of the body, the spinal cord feeds directly to the brain. Injury to it can affect motor control and brain function. There are many obvious neurological symptoms of spinal cord injury – seek immediate emergency veterinary attention if you think your cat has a spinal injury.
The most common cause of spinal cord injury is trauma leading to fracture(s) of the vertebrae; these include falls and car accidents. Inflammation of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord can also cause symptoms. Diseases affecting the spinal cord, like myelopathy, can be caused by bacterial infection, trauma, blocked blood vessels, genetically inherited conditions, or tumors. Slipped discs are another cause of injury. Spinal dysraphism, or spinal birth defects, can lead to problems later in life.
- Uncoordinated, jerky movements
- Urinary and fecal incontinence
- Muscle spasms or weakness
- Reduced appetite
- Complete or partial paralysis
- Abnormal, hunched posture
- Tensed muscles
- Excessive meowing or crying (pain)
All of the above are indicators of neurological injury. Emergency care is required for animals with injuries to the spinal cord and brain; permanent paralysis or brain damage can result if left untreated.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Your vet will need a detailed history of your cat’s symptoms – when they began and any recent injuries. Diagnostic tests will be run to narrow down the possibilities. A CT, MRI, or X-ray – or some combination of the three – may also be run to visualize any internal injuries to the spinal column. A sample of your cat’s spinal fluid may be taken to test for any bacterial infections.
Anti-inflammatories and steroids may be prescribed to reduce swelling around the spinal cord. If there are fractured vertebrae, they will be reset manually or surgically – these types of traumatic injuries usually require hospitalization. If a tumor or blocked blood vessel is the cause, surgery will be required to remove the blockage. Bacterial infections of the spinal fluid may be treated with antibiotics. Injuries resulting from birth defects can rarely be fixed with corrective surgery, but most are manageable with drug and physical therapy.
Some cats suffer from permanent incontinence and require their bladder to be manually expressed. Placing the litter box near your cat’s usual resting space can help prevent household accidents. Physical therapy can help cats with partial or non-permanent paralysis regain function of their limbs. Cats that are unable to move should be turned every few hours to prevent painful bedsores from forming. The quality of life of cats that are permanently paralyzed is not good; your vet may recommend euthanasia in some cases that are too severe to treat.
When your cat is young, don’t allow them to jump from heights of more than three feet. Obesity also puts more pressure on the spinal cord; if your cat falls, it can increase the likelihood of a spinal cord injury occurring. Keeping your cat inside can prevent traumatic injuries like car accidents from happening.
Some types of spinal cord injuries are unavoidable – tumors, blocked blood vessels, birth defects or viral infections. Others, like trauma and bacterial infections, can be prevented. Be a responsible pet parent and watch for the neurological symptoms of injury.