Intervertebral disk disease (IVDD) is a condition where the cushions between the cat's spinal bones harden, swell, or rupture. IVDD may be otherwise known as a slipped, herniated, or ruptured disc. The result is that the spinal cord and its surrounding nerves become damaged or compressed and may lead to a cat's inability to walk or move its limbs. Though IVDD is more prevalent in dogs, it is rare, but not impossible, for a cat to have the condition with similar results and outcomes.
What is Intervertebral Disc Disease?
Intervertebral disc disease affects your cat's intervertebral discs. Your cat's spinal column is comprised of alternating vertebrae and discs. The vertebrae are the individual bones and the discs are essentially shock absorbers that cushion each vertebra. These discs are made of a firm, outer layer while the interior is more jelly-like in its consistency.
IVDD occurs when this jelly-like interior gets pushed out (or herniates) into the spinal cord, which houses a multitude of nerves. When a disc herniates, the nerves may get pinched affecting how your cat functions and moves. This can lead to something as minor as neck or back pain and as major as partial or total paralysis. If a cat's rear limbs are affected, this is called thoracolumbar (T-L) disc disease, which is part of the IVDD condition. IVDD is common in dogs, especially breeds with shorter legs, but the incidence of it happening in cats is rare, although possible.
What are the Symptoms of IVDD in Cats?
Your cat's symptoms will depend on where the herniated disc is located in its spine. The severity also depends on how badly the nerves are being pinched. A cat in pain may hide or mask its symptoms so it may be a challenge to identify if your pet is ill. However if you notice any of the following symptoms, however non-specific they may seem to IVDD, call your vet.
Neck and Back Pain or Weakness
If your cat is hanging its head low or its front limbs seem to be in pain or weak, this behavior could indicate a neck problem. If you notice your cat may be in pain or weak in its back limbs, this could indicate a back problem.
If your cat has back pain, you may find it awkwardly arching or hunching its back as it is standing up or laying down.
Your cat may have stopped grooming itself like it used to. If your cat has back pain, contorting itself into a tight ball to reach certain areas so it can clean can be uncomfortable. If your cat does stop grooming themselves, you may start to notice that their coat is greasy, matted, and they may have dandruff.
Uncoordinated Gait and Decreased Mobility
Spinal pain will make it difficult for your cat to walk or move with ease. It may also be unwilling or have the ability to jump due to the pain.
Loss of Bladder or Bowel Control
The compression of the spinal cord may lead to incontinence as certain nerves are impacted. As in dogs, a cat's IVDD injury, depending on where the spinal compression is located, can result in urinary and fecal incontinence or retention.
Loss of Appetite
Though it's a subtle symptom, you might notice that your cat has stopped eating. Extreme pain can lead to inappetence in an animal. Leaning its head down to eat out of a bowl on the floor is painful because it can put a lot of stress on the cat's neck.
Causes of Intervertebral Disc Disease
In a few cases, discs may calcify or become more fibrous over time. When this happens, the integrity of the discs diminish and they are more at risk of herniating.
More commonly, trauma from an impact (like falling from a high distance or being struck by a vehicle) can rupture the disc, allowing the inner portion to herniate out. The most common places for a herniated disc in your cat would be in its neck and the middle of the back.
Diagnosing IVDD in Cats
When you bring your cat to the vet for suspected IVDD, many tests may be performed. Here is a rundown on what your vet will do to diagnose IVDD in your pet:
- Palpitation: Your vet will palpate your cat's back to look for signs of pain. These signs can be as overt as your cat hissing or vocalizing but they can also be more subtle, like your cat's muscles spasming when a painful area is pressed.
- Proprioception: Your vet will check your cat's sense of proprioception. Your vet will flip your cat's paws over and observe to see how quickly the cat corrects its paw placement. If your cat has a delayed reaction or doesn't even attempt to right its paw, that is indicative of a nerve issue.
- Gait assessment: This diagnostic tool is tricky for cats, but not for dogs that are used to walking with a leash. You may need to take a video of your cat walking at home and play it for your vet during the visit for a possible gait assessment.
- Deep pain response: Your vet will check your cat's deep pain response by gently pinching your cat's toes to see if it attempts to pull its paw away in reaction.
- Imaging: Radiographs, x-rays, and myelograms (colored dye in the spinal column highlights abnormalities) can help rule out other injuries and can show your vet if two vertebrae are closer together than others which could be causing your cat's pain. To fully assess your cat's discs, advanced imaging such as an MRI or CT scan may be needed.
If your cat is diagnosed with IVDD, your vet will create a treatment plan based on the severity of the case. For mild cases, your vet may prescribe the following:
- Pain medication and anti-inflammatory medication.
- Cold therapy laser to help decrease pain and inflammation and to help quicken the healing time.
- Acupuncture may be a potential alternative therapy for IVDD in animals.
If your cat's case is more severe, surgery may be required to correct the herniated disc. This is a highly specialized procedure and would require a veterinary specialist to perform it.
Prognosis of Cats With IVDD
Regardless of the severity of the problem, if treatment is sought out and your cat's spinal cord is not severely damaged (that is if your cat still has a deep pain response), a full recovery is usually possible. There is also research regarding the potential benefits of intensive physical rehabilitation techniques for cats that have suffered from thoracolumbar spinal cord injury, a type of IVDD.
How to Prevent IVDD
There is no way to prevent a cat from having IVDD. You can only try your best to prevent your cat from falling out of windows with loose or no screens or jumping off high places, such as balconies without gates, so it does not hit the ground hard and become seriously injured. These types of incidents could make your pet prone to IVDD.
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