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Cauda Equina Syndrome in Dogs and Cats

A Debilitating Disease That Can Affect Dogs or Cats

By February 21, 2014 | See Comments

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If your dog is struggling with stairs or seems shaky and unstable, don’t assume it’s just a touch of arthritis and old age – ask your vet whether it could be a debilitating disease of the spine known as cauda equina syndrome.

There are several conditions that can hinder a pet’s mobility, including arthritis and diseases or degeneration that affects dogs and cats as they age. One specifically painful condition that can cause severe pain and loss of strength in a pet’s legs is cauda equina syndrome (CES).

The disease involves a narrowing of the vertebral canal, which leads to a compression of spinal nerve roots. With this pressure on the spinal cord nerves, pets can lose the ability to support their body with their legs or even move their hind legs. The tail can become paralyzed. Some pets begin to chew on their limbs, leading to more
complications and discomfort. Recognizing the signs of the disease can help you get relief for your dog or cat as early as possible, so you can begin medical treatment that, hopefully, will relieve your pet’s pain and allow them to be mobile and independent again.

Causes of Cauda Equina Syndrome

CES mostly affects larger dogs, especially German Shepherds, but other canines and, in rare instances, felines. Animals can be born with the condition or may acquire it as a result of a pinching or irritation of the nerves at the end of the spinal cord. Hernias, tumors, or infections are possible causes of pressure that can cause CES.

Symptoms of Feline and Canine Cauda Equina Syndrome

Sometimes mistaken for hip dysplasia, CES causes symptoms similar to those related to bad hips, and, like hip dysplasia, it can impact your pet’s overall quality of life. The intense pressure on the spinal cord nerves caused by CES causes further problems as well. For instance, you may notice pets with CES:

  • refuse to jump
  • avoid stairs
  • carry their tail low
  • not wag their tail
  • have problems holding the right posture to defecate
  • flinch or whimper if you touch their lower back
  • be unable to use one or both back legs

A dog or cat whose nerves are severely compressed may also suffer from irreversible fecal and urinary incontinence.

Treatment of CES in Dogs and Cats

To diagnosis CES, your vet will perform a complete physical examination. If it seems that the problem is related to the spinal nerves, an MRI is usually done to get a better look at the nerve roots. A CT scan may also be used to look at the bones. The type of treatment your vet recommends will depend upon the cause (tumor, structural abnormality, etc.) and the severity of the problem. The general health of your dog or cat will also determine what type of treatment is most appropriate.

Vets will often try to treat your pet initially with anti-inflammatory medications such as Prednisolone, which, along with strict rest for up to two months, can relieve symptoms of CES. You’ll need to take time caring for pets during this period and limit their activity.

Surgery is usually required to release the pressure on the spinal nerves. There are two types of medical procedures that veterinarians use to treat CES.

  • Part of the bone and the intervertebral disc are removed in an effort to alleviate pressure on the spinal cord and the nerves.

  • Bones are fused together, forming them into as normal a position as possible in order to decrease the possibility of further problems and arthritis.

For dogs and cats who are not yet incontinent, still fairly mobile, and are in good health otherwise, the prognosis is very good as long as they rest while recuperating. Unfortunately, for pets who are already incontinent, overweight, or have other back problems, surgery may relieve some of their pain, but they may continue to have problems or complications and will need to be specially cared for after surgery.

More on Neurological Pet Diseases

Dog Neurological Disorders and Brain Health
Brain Health and Neurological Disorders in Cats
What Is Cerebellar Ataxia in Dogs and Cats?

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Cauda Equina Syndrome at a glance

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  • 1This condition is caused by a narrowing of the vertebral canal, which puts pressure on spinal nerves.
  • 2Some symptoms are similar to hip dysplasia, but the impact can be more severe with CES.
  • 3Cauda equina syndrome mostly affects large dogs, but can occur in other breeds and, in rare instances, cats.
  • 4Surgery can alleviate the pain and symptoms, but for pets with late stage CES, treatment is limited.
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