How to Treat Intervertebral Disc Disease in Cats

Calico cat jumping from a chair to an ottoman

Cats are known to have a love of being high up off the floor. Their agility and ability to jump lends well to lounging on bookcases, shelves, and window sills. There are several reasons why your cat would suddenly stop climbing. One reason, especially if your cat's change in behavior is sudden, is a condition called Intervertebral Disc Disease, or IVDD for short.

What is Intervertebral Disc Disease in Cats?

Intervertebral disc disease, as its name would suggest, is a disease of 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 consistency.

IVDD occurs when this jelly-like interior gets pushed out (or herniates, hence the term herniated disc) into the spinal cord. The major problem with this is that your cat's spinal cord houses their nerves. When a disc herniates, the nerves may get pinched. This can lead to something as minor as neck or back pain and as major as partial or total paralysis. IVDD is quite common in dogs, especially those with shorter legs, but it's incidence in cats, while possible, is rarer.

What Causes Intervertebral Disc Disease in Cats?

In a few cases, a disc may calcify or become more fibrous over time. When this happens, the integrity of the disc diminishes 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 their neck and the middle of the back.

What are the Symptoms of Intervertebral Disc Disease in Cats?

Your cat's symptoms will depend on where the herniated disc is located in their spine. They can also vary in severity depending on how badly the nerves are being pinched.

Signs

More subtlety, you may notice that your cat may stop eating their food. Extreme pain can lead to inappetence. Also, leaning their head down to eat out of a bowl on the floor can put a lot of stress on the cat's neck.

Additionally, you may notice that your cat stops grooming themselves like they used to. If your cat has back pain, contorting into a tight ball to reach certain areas to 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.

How is Intervertebral Disc Disease in Cats Diagnosed?

When you bring your cat to the vet for suspected IVDD the first thing the vet will do will be to palpate your cat's back. By doing this, they are looking 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 on.

Your vet will also check your cat's sense of proprioception. This is just a big word for knowing where you are in space. Your vet will flip your cat's paws over and will see how quickly they correct their paw placement. If your cat has a delayed time or doesn't even attempt to right their paw, that is indicative of a nerve issue.

Another handy tool for your vet is gait assessment. This is easily done for dogs but can be trickier for cats. Most cats can't be leash walked up and down a hall as a dog can. Thankfully, we live in a wonderful age of technology. You can easily take a video of your cat's 'normal' gait at home and play it for your vet during the visit.

Another trick to quickly assess whether there is a nerve component or not is to check your cat's deep pain response. To do this your vet will lightly pinch your cat's toes. Not harshly, just enough to see if your cat attempts to pull their paw away.

Imaging can also be a helpful diagnostic tool. Radiographs or x-rays can help rule out other injuries and can show your vet if two vertebrae are closer together than others, which could cause pain. Radiographs won't show changes in your cat's intervertebral discs, though. To fully appreciate your cat's discs, advanced imaging such as an MRI or CT scan would be needed.

How is Intervertebral Disc Disease in Cats Treated?

If your cat is diagnosed with IVDD, your vet will create a treatment plan based on the severity of their case.

In mild cases, your vet will prescribe pain medication and anti-inflammatory medication. If your vet has a cold therapy laser they may also recommend that to help decrease pain and inflammation and to help quicken the healing time. Acupuncture is sometimes also used as an alternative therapy.

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.

Regardless of the severity of the problem, if treatment is sought out and your cat's spinal cord is not severely damaged (i.e. your cat still has that deep pain response mentioned earlier), a full recovery is usually possible.