sudden paralysis during play: what every pet parent needs to know

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Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Aug 22 2014


Dogs love to play. There’s nothing quite like the joy that dances across the faces of our canine friends while they are hard at play, whether frolicking on the beach or chasing a frisbee across an open field. Of course, most of our feline friends also enjoy play from time to time, but so often their dignified natures wouldn’t dare betray their aloof reputations with even so much of a joyous twinkle of the eye.

Nothing turns a raucous play session into a time of panic quite like an injury, though. We’ve talked some about injuries sustained during play. The most common injury we see in dogs at work or play is a torn cruciate ligament, which results in lameness from pain in the knee joint. Today we’ll discuss an even more disconcerting injury—fibrocartilaginous embolism, or FCE for short.

Cause

The spine of mammals comprises of vertebral bones separated by cushiony intervertebral disks. The spine serves two important roles—it provides a stable structure for the rest of our frame, and it protects the spinal cord. A fibrocartilaginous embolism occurs when a bit of disk material clogs the blood vessels that supply the spinal cord with blood.

We don’t know how disk material gains access to the blood vessels, but the material acts much as a blood clot does when a stroke occurs. When the blood vessels are blocked and blood can’t get to the spinal cord, the damaged spinal cord results in limb weakness and paralysis.

Symptoms

FCE can happen in dogs of any size, and in cats, too (though it is much more common in dogs). Typically, you and your dog will be hard at play when you hear a yelp and find that your dog is suddenly weak or paralyzed. Usually, the signs are asymmetric (occurring in one limb but not the other), and while there was an inciting injury to cause the embolism, the condition is not painful.

Diagnosis

Your veterinarian will make a diagnosis of FCE based on your pet’s clinical signs (weakness or paralysis without spinal pain), but will likely need to do further diagnostics to be sure. That’s because intervertebral disk disease and FCE look very similar in pets, but the treatments are very different. X-rays won’t show much if FCE is causing your pet’s clinical signs, but they can be helpful to rule out intervertebral disk disease. An MRI may be warranted in some cases.

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for FCE other than nursing care and TLC. Clinical signs will stabilize 12 to 24 hours after the injury and will not get worse. From there, it’s just a matter of time before your pet gradually recovers (and most pets do). Your veterinarian may prescribe physical therapy or show you exercises to do at home with your pet, but for the most part, extra kisses and love (along with a little help walking) will be the best medicine!