This condition is quite common in dogs although it is very rare in cats. It is really a type of stroke that affects the spinal cord instead of the brain. In this case the stroke is caused by small pieces of disc material that somehow get into the blood vessels supplying the spinal cord to cause a blockage. Clinical signs are therefore very sudden in onset and often cause immediate paralysis of one limb, of the rear limbs or sometimes of all four limbs. The animals may be painful initially but the pain usually resolves completely within a few hours. Diagnosis depends on ruling out other potential causes of the signs such as a fracture or disc disease. There is no treatment although physical therapy has been shown to influence recovery favorably. The completeness of the animal’s recovery depends mainly on how much of the spinal cord has been damaged by the injury and this is best determined by a neurological examination.
Figure 12: MRI from a dog that became acutely paralyzed after jumping down several steps. There is a local area of spinal cord swelling with fluid accumulation centrally that shows as a light-colored area (arrow). A post mortem that confirmed the injury had been caused by a fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE).
The prognosis is good for most dogs with FCE unless a large area of the spinal cord is affected. Complications that may occur in more severely affected dogs include incontinence and injury to the paralyzed limb.
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