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Fibrocartilaginous Embolism (FCE), more commonly known as a canine spinal stroke occurs when there a blockage occurs in a blood vessel supplying the spinal cord. When this occurs, it can cause immediate paralysis to one or more of the dog’s legs.
Although a spinal stroke occurs due to a blockage in a blood vessel it is different that other types of canine stroke. During an FCE the blockage is actually a piece of the intervertebral disc and not a blood clot. When an FCE occurs, a piece of the spinal cord breaks off to block the blood flow in the dog’s spinal column.
Fibrocartilaginous Embolism Symptoms and Diagnosis
Spinal strokes occur suddenly, often occurring during physical activity like jumping or running around. Typically, the first sign is a sudden yelp followed by a dog losing the ability to walk. The sharp, sudden pain from an FCE typically lessens. Often the pain disappears after a few minutes, but it can take up to a few hours. Likely the pain will diminish, but your dog will remain uncomfortable. Most dogs will show signs of leg weakness immediately following the stroke, usually the back legs.
Unlike other mobility conditions, an FCE occurs primarily in younger, active dogs. Most canine spinal strokes occur in dogs under the age of 6. Spinal strokes occur in both dogs and cats, most commonly effecting larger breed dogs, although is also prevalent in smaller breeds such as Miniature Schnauzers and Shelties.
Dog Stroke Symptoms
The onset of a spinal stroke in dogs is sudden and scary. Most of the time when a dog has an FCE they cry out and then are suddenly unable to walk on their own. Sometimes the spinal stroke symptoms don’t appear until a few moments later when the initial shock has worn off. Signs of a stroke in dogs can vary, here are a few of the most common symptoms of spinal stroke:
Sudden, severe pain that quickly disappears
Signs of weakness
Dragging back legs or weakness in the rear legs
Loss of coordination
Partial or full rear leg paralysis
Wobbly or uneven gait
Receiving immediate care is vital for your pet’s recovery. At the first sign of a problem, contact your Veterinarian immediately. Early diagnosis of spinal stroke and receiving immediate medical help, will lead to a more successful recovery. The specific symptoms your dog experiences, and the severity of those symptoms, will depend on how much of the dog’s spinal cord is damaged during the stroke. Leg paralysis may occur in one limb or in all depending on the location of the spinal stroke.
Causes of a Canine Spinal Stroke
There are no clear indicators of any markers that make a dog “high risk” for having a spinal stroke. Spinal strokes are more common among large dogs, but occur frequently in both the Miniature Schnauzers and Sheltie breeds. Age isn’t really a good indicator either, since fibrocartilaginous embolisms happen in dogs as young as 4 months through dogs older than 10 years old. Most FCE strokes happen in active dogs between the ages of 3 to 5 years old, who jumped or landed incorrectly forcing the intervertebral disc pressure on the spinal cord to block blood flow.
There is some good news for dogs suffering from a spinal stroke. The symptoms won’t continue to worsen after the first 24 hours and there is no increased risk of your dog having another spinal stroke in the future.
Diagnosing a Dog with an FCE
Anytime a dog experiences changes in mobility or there is suspected spinal trauma you should meet with a veterinary neurologist. When a dog has a suspected spinal stroke, a physical exam will be conducted to assess and rule out any other possible diagnosis. To confirm an FCE diagnosis an MRI will be ordered to determine what part of the spine is affected, the size of the embolism, and what the prognosis is for recovery.
Help a Dog Recover from a Stroke
It is possible for a dog to recover from a stroke or FCE. It takes time, patience and rehabilitation plays a big part in the recovery process. The first 24 hours following the stroke will be the worst symptoms. Every dog’s recovery plan will vary, but strengthening rehab exercise is key to getting a dog back on their feet.
The good news, is that with proper treatment of FCE over 74% of spinal stroke dogs regain leg function and are no longer incontinent. In the first couple of weeks following the stroke, your Vets focus will be on reducing the inflammation and damage caused by the stroke. Once the initial soft tissue injuries and swelling have been managed the focus will shift to pain reduction and improving canine mobility.
Treating FCE and Canine Spinal Stroke
When a dog suffers a spinal stroke, its treatment plan will vary. The key to your pet’s recovery is allowing plenty of time for rest. Most Vets will recommend crate rest or confining your dog to a gated area while they recover. You Vet will guide you through the correct course of treatment for you dog.
Pet parents play an important role in a FCE recovery. Encouraging safe and supported movement and at home exercises can help speed up the recovery process. In fact, it’s important to encourage dogs to move and walk as soon as its safely possible. Your pet should stay away from stairs until they’ve fully regained their strength.
If your dog is unable to stand on its own make sure they have a comfortable bed with plenty of padding to rest on. To prevent bed sores or discomfort, rotate your dog every four to six hours. To avoid developing bladder or urinary tract infections, a completely immobilized dog, may need your assistance to manually express their bladder.
Physical Therapy for FCE
Physical therapy is a vital part of a dog’s healing process. Canine stroke rehabilitation can help your dog improve their overall strength and coordination as they recover. With the help of a physical therapist, your dog can work to regain range of motion and improve overall mobility.
It’s important to know that your dog’s recovery will take time. Noticeable signs of improvement and regaining strength times time. Your pet may never fully recover their mobility, but physical therapy will greatly improve their odds. Common FCE therapies and exercises include:
Hydrotherapy with an underwater treadmill
Recovering from an FCE can be a slow process. Pets that experience slow and steady improvement are usually able to walk within two to six weeks, but every dog is different. The different types of physiotherapy help your dog to rebuild their strength, improve their walking, and reduce inflammation.
Mobility Aids that can be used during recovery and physical therapy sessions:
Assistive devices such as a dog wheelchair or a supportive harness are important to keep dogs upright and mobile during spinal stroke rehabilitation therapy. By utilizing a dog mobility aid the dog remains on all four legs with full support as they work through each rehabilitative exercise.
When Milo, a nine-year-old Bassett Hound/Boxer mix, was felled by an FCE his rear legs were left paralyzed. Milo’s parents were stunned when their their Vet told that he would never walk again. Refusing to give up on Milo, they agreed to do anything they could to help him.
Working with their Rehab Therapist, they purchased a Walkin’ Wheels wheelchair to help get Milo up and moving as soon as possible. Milo immediately took to his new wheels, relying on his new wheelchair for daily exercise, bathroom breaks and during his therapy sessions. Milo’s parents began to see signs of improvement. After only a few short weeks with his Walkin’ Wheels, Milo could move his back legs.
“We are amazed by Milo’s progress. His wheelchair is the perfect rehabilitation tool – allowing him to exercise in comfort, preventing muscle atrophy, joint stiffening and depression.
Most importantly, it provides stimulation of the nerves lost to the emboli providing physical therapy just as we would in humans with a functional deficit or injury. After two weeks, we noticed his back legs suddenly were starting to move while he was ‘wheelin’ one day, and now he is regaining his rear leg function. It seems he gets more back every day, and the wheelchair has been a huge part of that.”
Milo shows that suffering a spinal stroke is not the end of the story, its simply the beginning. The road to recovery is different for every dog, but with proper care and a quick diagnosis your dog can enjoy a long and happy life.
Good News about Canine Strokes
Having a spinal stroke does not mean your dog is at risk for another one. According to Fitzpatrick Referrals “once an animal recovers there is very little chance of recurrence.”