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.
Although the name suggests otherwise, ringworm isn’t caused by a worm at all-but a fungus that can infect the skin, hair and nails. Not uncommon in cats, this highly contagious disease can lead to patchy, circular areas of hair loss with central red rings. Also known as dermatophytosis, ringworm often spreads to other pets in the household-and to humans, too.
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.