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Spinal Issues In Cats

Many cases of spinal issues seen in cats are in fact congenital malformations of the spine and vertebrae. Research has found that sacrococcygeal dysgenesis is a dominant trait whereas another called thoracic hemivertebra is a recessive trait that some breeds can pass on to their offspring. When kittens are born with a spinal defect, the problem is apparent at birth or it could take a few weeks for signs of there being problem to become noticeable. All too often it takes a few months for any symptoms associated with a spinal issue to develop, but then it’s important for a correct diagnosis to be made as soon as possible.

The Causes

There are many reasons why a cat might develop or be born with spinal issues and this includes the following:

  • Malformation of their occipital bones which are known as the atlas and axis. These are the first and the second cervical vertebrae found at the base of a cat's skull. When this occurs, the result is that pressure is put on a cat's upper spinal cord and this in turn can lead to total paralysis and then sudden and unexpected death
  • Half a vertebra which is referred to as hemivertebra
  • A wedge-shaped vertebra - this can cause an angle in a cat's spine
  • Lordosis, kyphosis and scoliosis
  • Transitional vertebrae - this is where a vertebra has two characteristics
  • A blocked vertebra which can lead to changes in a cat's discs
  • Fused vertebrae - cats may never show any symptoms of there being something wrong
  • Butterfly vertebrae - cats may never show any symptoms of there being something wrong
  • Spina bifida - this condition is linked to sacrococcygeal dyspenesis where the lowest vertebrae of the spine are malformed which results in a cat having a stumped tail
  • Variable spinal dysplasia - this includes many problems of the spine and results in a cat having a strange gait because of weakness in their back legs. It is an inherited dominant autosomal trait that's seen in the Manx cat
  • Myelodysplasia - a condition where a cat's bone marrow does not develop as it should
  • Congenital spinal stenosis - a hereditary condition that kittens are born with

The Causes

There are quite a few reasons why a cat might develop spinal malformations and this includes the following:

  • A genetic link
  • Pregnant cats being exposed to toxins
  • Nutritional deficiencies during pregnancy
  • Stress

Diagnosing the Problem

A vet would need to have a cat's full medical history and they would ideally also need to know a cat's ancestry. They would also need to know how the first signs of there being any wrong first manifested themselves as this helps confirm a diagnosis. Other tests a vet would typically recommend doing when a cat is suspected of having any sort of spinal problem could include the following:

  • A full physical examination
  • X-rays of a cat's spinal column which would show up if and where any malformations have occurred
  • A myelography which a vet would recommend should a cat be showing any neurological issues which includes paralysis. The test would show up if a cat's spinal cord is being compressed. This is the test of choice that most vets use when confirming a spinal issue in cats
  • A CT scan
  • An MRI scan

Treatment Options

Treatment depends on the type of spinal issues a cat might be suffering from. Should the spinal canal have narrowed or if a cat's spinal cord is compressed, a vet might recommend surgery, but only if the condition is caught early enough and no secondary damage has been done to a cat's spinal column. However, if the condition is not treated early enough, surgery may not be an option. Cats that show signs of any sort of neurological issues as a result of spinal malformations, should be given complete rest combined with supportive care while at the same time treating the underlying causes of their condition.

Living and Management

If a cat's treatment is successful, a vet would need to see them on a regular basis to check their progress. This means scheduling visits to the surgery every four months or so at which time the vet would take more X-rays of their spinal column to make sure things are still okay. When cats suffer any sort of spinal injury whether inherited or acquired, they often become incontinent, but at the other end of the scale, they can become constipated and they often develop urinary tract infections. As such, they need to be treated with antibiotics and fed food that is easily digestible.

It is essential that any cat that suffers from any sort of congenital spinal defect not be used for breeding purposes because that's the only way of preventing offspring from being born with spinal and vertebral malformations. Any cat known to suffer from hereditary spinal issues should be spayed or neutered when the time is right to prevent them from mating. When kittens are born with severe spinal defects, their condition is often untreatable and as such the kindest thing to do is put them to sleep to prevent unnecessary suffering.


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