Injuries and diseases of the spinal cord produce a variety of neurological
signs. Following injury, there may be neck or back pain; weakness or paralysis of one or
more legs; a stumbling, uncoordinated gait; loss of pain perception in the
limbs; and urinary or fecal incontinence.
Other conditions producing limb weakness or paralysis that may be mistaken
for a spinal cord problem are arterial thromboembolism, nerve injury,
and broken bones. Arterial thromboembolism can be distinguished by absent or
reduced pulses in the groin.
Cats are supreme tree-climbing hunters, with strongly muscled backs and hindquarters that give them tremendous power to jump-either horizontally or vertically. It’s normal for cats to jump and climb to high places as they explore their environment. They have sharp, protractile (extendable) claws that serve as useful crampons for climbing.
A pelvic fracture is frequently mistaken for a broken back. In both cases,
the cat is unable to use her back
legs and will show pain when handled in the area of the injury. An X-ray may be
needed to distinguish the two conditions. It is important to ascertain that the
urinary bladder hasn’t ruptured. It might appear that the outlook is poor, even
though cats with a broken pelvis usually recover completely.
Acute abdominal pain (caused by peritonitis, lower urinary tract disorder,
or a kidney or liver infection) produces a peculiar hunched appearance that can
be mistaken for a spinal cord problem. The acute abdomen will show signs of
pain when pressure is applied to the abdominal wall.
Spinal Cord Injuries
Traumatic spinal cord injuries are usually caused by car accidents, falls,
and abuse. A cat can get caught in the blades of an automobile fan when the car
is started, because outdoor cats frequently will huddle up next to a warm car
radiator in cold weather.
A common injury occurs when a car runs over a cat’s tail, pulling apart the
sacral-lumbar or coccygeal vertebrae and stretching the nerves that go to the
bladder, rectum, and tail. The signs are paralysis of the tail (which hangs
loosely like a rope) and urinary or fecal incontinence. The anal sphincter is
completely relaxed. The bladder is paralyzed and greatly overdistended. If the
condition is not recognized and treated shortly after the accident, bladder
paralysis remains even though nerve function is restored. As a result, any cat
with a limp tail must be seen by a veterinarian and X-rayed for sacral injury.
Many of these cats will need to be hospitalized so the bladder can be manually
emptied and treatment can be started to attempt to heal the nerves controlling
urination and defecation.