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Fracture of the Spine in Cats

By: Dr. Nicholas Trout

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Spinal fractures are breaks in the normal structure of a spinal bone as a result of trauma or other underlying pathology. Because the spinal cord runs within the spinal canal, which is made up of the spinal bones, a fracture of bone can have severe consequences for the nerve supply at the level of the fracture.

There is no breed or sex predilection but spinal fractures and spinal luxations, which are dislocations between adjacent spinal bones, tend to occur more commonly in younger animals less than five years old, rather than older animals.

Causes

The most common cause of a spinal fracture or luxation is trauma from being hit by a car. Other causes might include:

  • Attacks from larger dogs
  • Gun shot injuries
  • Hanging from a leash or a collar
  • Running head first into a solid object
  • Underlying diseases of the bone, such as tumor or metabolic disorders

    Spinal fractures or luxations constitute a potential surgical emergency because the fractured bone can cause irreversible damage to the spinal cord, which can lead to paralysis or even death.

    What to Watch For

  • Inability to walk
  • Dragging rear legs
  • Abnormal curvature to the spinal column
  • Intense pain

    Diagnosis

    Most commonly, your cat will have sustained trauma and, as such, will be handled carefully and cautiously with regard to the spine, whether or not neurologic deficits are present. All systems will be examined and emergency treatment provided where necessary. Tests include:

  • Physical examination of the spine while other vital systems are being addressed. A thorough neurological examination will be performed to try to define the location and the severity of a spinal injury.
  • Plain radiographs(x-rays) will be obtained if a fracture or luxation of the spine is suspected. Whether these films are obtained while your animal is conscious or anesthetized will depend upon the nature of the injured cat and the severity of the injuries.

  • In some cases, a radiographic dye study of the spine, a myelogram, may be indicated to better evaluate the damage to the spinal cord. Where available, CT or MRI may also be helpful.

  • Often, laboratory evaluation of the patient's blood is non-specific for spinal fractures but can be important where other systems have been injured or in cases where the fracture is secondary to metabolic bone disorders.

    Treatment

    The fracture will be evaluated as being either stable or unstable on an X-ray and these findings will be considered in conjunction with the physical and neurological examination. Serial neurological examinations may give a sense of a stable, improving or worsening condition that may also impact on the type of treatment recommended. Treatment includes:

  • Emergency supportive care for other vital systems

  • Medical management to include the use of a neck brace or body brace, confinement and restriction and a course of steroids. This kind of treatment may be instituted prior to surgical treatment where the patient is initially unstable with respect to other vital systems.

  • Surgical management to stabilize the damaged portion of the spine using standard principles of fracture repair. Pins and wire, plates and screws, external fixators and combinations of pins and sterile cement polymers can be used on their own or with external support from casts or braces. The goal is to restore the integrity and stability of the spinal canal and, therefore, the spinal cord. At the end of the procedure, the canal should be back in its correct position, giving the damaged spinal cord the optimum conditions in which to heal.

  • Some spinal fractures are so severe that permanent paralysis is inevitable. In these situations, many owners elect to euthanize their pet.

    Home Care and Prevention

    In the case of a medically managed spinal fracture, cage rest and strict confinement must be undertaken to ensure minimal motion at the fracture site and optimal healing. Restriction will be just as important for cases managed surgically.

    If a neck brace or body brace has been used, your cat may require assistance getting up to go to the bathroom. The brace will need to be monitored for rubbing, chafing or sores where the edges contact the skin. If sores develop, the brace will need to be changed.

    If surgery has been performed, there will be a skin incision that needs to be monitored for swelling, redness or discharge. Staples or stitches are removed in 10 to 14 days following the surgery.

    Follow-up X-rays will be taken by your veterinarian to ensure the fracture is healing properly and that there are no problems with the implants, if they were used.

    Since most spinal fractures occur secondary to being hit by a car, all cats, where possible, should be kept indoors. Neutering or spaying your cat will prevent wandering, which may increase the risk of trauma.

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