Spinal Stroke in Canines

By Jane Meggitt

If your dog is happily running or playing and suddenly becomes paralyzed or significantly disabled, he might have suffered a canine spinal stroke. Formally known as either fibrocartilagenous embolism or fibrocartilagenous embolic myelopathy, spinal stroke results from a blood clot that interferes with spinal cord blood flow. If you suspect a stroke, take your dog to the vet immediately.

Canine Fibrocartilagenous Embolism

A fibrocartilagenous embolism, or FCE, is not a herniated disc, but initial symptoms can resemble one. An FCE may be a blood clot, or it can result when tiny bits of fibrocartilage from the intervertebral discs break off and block spinal cord blood vessels. The lack of blood flow to the spinal cord quickly causes the paralysis or function loss.

While any dog can develop an FCE, active large breeds are primarily affected. FCE most often occurs in younger dogs, those under the age of 6. Males are more commonly affected than females. FCE is generally a one-time event, with little chance of recurrence.

Fibrocartilagenous Embolism Symptoms

While a dog might cry out as an FCE occurs, it's otherwise not painful. Symptoms depend on where the embolism occurred in the spinal cord and its severity. While some dogs exhibit total paralysis, others have only a hitch in the gait or a certain amount of unsteadiness or weakness. If you witness the FCE, you may notice that your dog's toes knuckled under before he went down. That and the absence of pain indicate to the vet upon examination that an FCE might have occurred.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Besides physical signs, your vet diagnoses FCE by ruling out other neurological disorders, such as a fracture of the spine or intervertebral disc disease. She will perform X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging to see the condition of your dog's spinal cord.

There is no treatment per se for FCE. Instead, your dog requires intense supportive care. Depending on how badly he's affected, that can involve turning his body about every hour, manually expressing his bladder and keeping tabs on his progress. Your dog will likely benefit from physical therapy, such as using an underwater treadmill to build muscles, and professional rehabilitation. If your vet doesn't offer such services, she can recommend a facility for you.

Fibrocartilagenous Embolism Recovery

Fortunately, most dogs eventually recover from FCE. You'll probably see some improvement within 48 hours of the incident. If your dog makes some progress within three weeks of the FCE, he'll likely recover to some degree. Within several months, he could be back to normal. Some dogs experience limitations, but not usually enough to seriously interfere with quality of life.

If there's not much change in his condition at the end of the third week, he is probably not going to walk again but might do well with a canine wheelchair. If he doesn't regain bowel or bladder function, you and your vet will have to consider euthanasia.