A spinal stroke, or fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE), in dogs can lead to decreased mobility and even complete paralysis. While most common in large breeds, this condition can occur in any dog. Fortunately, with treatment, most dogs will regain use of their limbs over time.
What is a Spinal Stroke?
Similar to a stroke in the brain, a spinal stroke occurs when an obstruction or clot chokes the blood supply to a portion of the spinal cord, which affects the neurological function of limbs. Where the stroke occurs determines which limbs show symptoms and the severity of the injury. The extent of the obstruction, which may be a small fragment of a spinal disc or clot, also increases the degree of severity of the FCE.
Comparison of Disc Injuries
When a dog's disc ruptures, it usually ruptures up or laterally causing an overall compression on the spinal cord and nerves; this is called a Type 1 Disc Herniation. Unlike more common disc herniation in dogs, with FCE, the disc material ruptures laterally and penetrates the spinal artery or vein which blocks the flow of blood.
Causes of Spinal Stroke
While the true cause of FCE is unknown, the obstruction or clot may have been caused by trauma or injury. You may notice your dog yelp after an outburst of energy or excessive exercise, followed by weakness in the limbs. While your dog may yelp, the injury is not usually painful.
Commonality in Dogs
Giant and large breed dogs more often develop FCE than smaller dogs, with the exception of Shetland Sheepdogs and Miniature Schnauzers. Spinal strokes occur more frequently in males dogs than females, and usually happen between 3 and 6 years of age. However, FCE can occur in all dogs at any age.
Diagnosis is usually first determined by symptoms and breed disposition with myelography, CAT scans and MRI used to eliminate other injuries. X-rays rarely show the true nature of a spinal injury, even with myelography, so an MRI may be the best way to get a diagnosis. Without surgery (or an autopsy) FCE cannot be fully confirmed.
Some dogs may recover on their own with a little rest, but physiotherapy, anti-inflammatories and steroids will help your dog rebuild strength. Treatment started in the first few hours of the onset of FCE has the most pronounced effect, however, physiotherapy and complementary care (acupuncture, chiropractic care) performed even months later may help in recovering use of the limbs. Unlike many disc herniations, a spinal stroke is not as conducive to surgical treatment, however, it is an option in cases where the FCE is not the only spinal condition affecting your dog.
With any spinal or back injury in your dog, you should seek an animal neurosurgeon or similar specialist in your area as soon as possible to diagnose the condition. Most vets will not have access to diagnostic machines beyond X-rays, and will simply prescribe a steroid and confinement. With all spinal injuries in dogs, especially FCE, treatment should be done shortly after the onset of the symptoms in order to promote a full recovery.