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Recognizing & Treating Spinal Stroke in Dogs

Playtime should never turn painful, but it can if your pet is predisposed to spinal problems. Our dogs’ genetic makeup and energetic personalities can sometimes mean trouble later on in life. Spinal stroke, also known as a fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE), is one condition that serves as an example.

FCE occurs in dogs when a fragment of an intervertebral disc material enters a blood vessel. This creates a blockage, thus causing a stroke in the spinal cord. While it sounds serious and requires immediate attention, it can be treated with the use of physical therapy, supplements, and other lifestyle changes.

Spinal stroke is typically characterized by an initial paralysis, but sometimes the symptoms can be easily missed. If you’re not sure whether or not your pet has suffered a spinal stroke, keep an eye on her for 24 hours after the initial suspected impact.

FCE Causes & Symptoms

Spinal stroke typically occurs in dogs that are predisposed to spinal problems and Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD). This usually affects smaller breeds with longer bodies and shorter legs, creating a gradual collapse in the central portion of the spinal column.

However, FCE can also be triggered by roughhousing or harsh jumping. If your dog doesn’t properly land a jump, a disc could slip and create a blockage. Larger-breed male dogs also have a high risk of developing FCE, although the reasoning behind this is unknown.

Symptoms of spinal stroke are rarely definite, but there are a few behaviors that could be attributed to it.

  • Your dog emits a sudden yelp or cry during physical activity.
  • The yelp or cry is followed by paralysis or an inability to move.
  • Following paralysis, your dog is dragging his hind legs.
  • He is wobbly, unsteady, or shaky for up to 24 hours after the initial impact.

Your dog may not exhibit pain for long after the initial impact, causing you to think no damage has been done. However, the damage can manifest itself as changes in your pet’s mobility. If, 24 hours after the suspected onset of the spinal stroke, you are noticing changes in gait and energy levels, consult your vet immediately.

Physical Rehabilitation

Much like with humans, physical therapy can help animals regain their confidence and ability to move again. In the event of a spinal stroke, it’s essential to be extra-gentle during therapy. Your vet should recommend some qualified animal rehabilitation specialists.

Animal rehabilitation specialists typically employ one (or all) of the following physical therapy procedures for FCE:

  • This involves exercising your dog’s limbs underwater. Water's weightlessness eases the pressure on limbs and joints. For this, your dog either walks on an underwater treadmill or treads water in a doggie pool with a life vest on.
  • They will target reflexology points that may reawaken and restore damaged nerves in the spinal column. An experienced and qualified acupuncturist will not cause your pet any pain. In fact, your pet may even become so relaxed, she’ll fall asleep.
  • Stretch & massage. Light massaging of the muscles surrounding the spinal column and lower limbs will aid in range of motion.
  • Laser therapy. This non-invasive procedure involves using a low-intensity laser to stimulate cell regeneration and blood circulation, thus reducing swelling and inflammation for sufferers of disc problems and other chronic conditions.

Vitamins & Natural Supplements

As spinal stroke is a neurological condition, Vitamin E will be a crucial addition to your pet’s diet. Vitamin E is an anti-oxidant that improves cell health. It also prevents muscle degeneration as a result of inability to move.

Vitamin B6 is another helpful supplement. This vitamin supports immune system health and recovery after an ailment, ensuring it doesn’t escalate into infection or anything more serious. It will also replenish red blood cells.

Lastly, you may want to consider giving your dog a few drops of CBD oil daily until he recovers fully. Not only can it act as a natural painkiller, but it has also been shown to help regulate the nervous system and protect neurons (the cells that send signals between the brain and spinal cord) from damage.

Mobility Aids

Pet mobility aids are an inexpensive, unobtrusive approach to restoring movement. These come in the form of wheelchairs, back braces, harnesses, splints, and other gear. A back brace is a good place to start, as it will help your dog regain stability and core health. Back braces can return back muscles to their natural condition and realign the spinal column.

Meanwhile, a pet wheelchair would allow your four-legged friend to navigate spaces uninhibited. This way, they can restore the muscles in their lower limbs and regain stamina. A wheelchair will widen your pet’s girth, so make sure to move impeding furniture out of her way.

Finally, harnesses are necessary for owners who need to lift their pets in and out of bathtubs and cars, or up and down stairs. You may be able to carry your smaller dog, but a harness ensures equal distribution of the weight of her limbs.

At-Home Support

Remember, you are your pet’s single most important key to recovery. A dog that has suffered a spinal stroke will almost surely make a turnaround, but he still needs your moral (and financial) support.

There are a number of ways you can offer your pet extra support.

  • Expressing their bladder and bowels for them, as they may not have control over these bodily functions during their paralysis.
  • Invest in a comfortable dog bed for some restorative time.
  • Praise them and reward them with treats after successful physical therapy sessions.
  • Make their vitamin supplements easy to ingest. You can crush them up into their food, place them in a pill pocket, or (if it’s a tincture) drop it directly onto their tongue.

FCE in dogs is not life-threatening, and most pets make a full recovery with immediate care, acknowledgement, and medical attention.

“Although each case varies, the best treatment for an FCE is typically rehabilitation therapy and time,” veterinary neurologist Dr. Kari Foss says. “Most pets will make a great recovery and live a normal life.”

Since it can be very difficult to recognize, a lot of owners don't address FCE right away, so be vigilant and set an example for your pet. She will read your reactions, so if you are positive and hopeful during the healing process, she won’t be so frightened, and this will help her make a quicker recovery.


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