Fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE) is a serious health condition that can affect dogs. Although relatively uncommon, it can cause significant neurological symptoms. FCE occurs when fibrocartilaginous material, typically from an intervertebral disc in the spine, is dislodged and becomes lodged within the blood vessels of the spinal cord. This results in a blockage of blood flow to a specific area of the spinal cord, leading to neurological symptoms. FCE can affect dogs of any age or breed, but is more commonly seen in large and giant breeds. 

Cause: Fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE) is a condition that usually happens unexpectedly and without any identifiable risk factors. However, some believe that engaging in vigorous exercise or sudden movements could increase the chances of an embolism occurring. Nevertheless, FCE can happen without any association with intense activity. Dogs who have experienced trauma or injury to the spinal cord may also be at increased risk of developing FCE.The clinical signs of fibrocartilaginous embolism in dogs can vary depending on the location and severity of the embolism. 

Common signs may include:

  • Sudden onset of hind limb weakness or paralysis: This is most often bilateral but can be unilateral (affecting only one side of the body) and can range from mild weakness to complete paralysis.
  • Dogs may appear unsteady on their feet and have difficulty walking with a drunken stagger, which is known as ataxia.
  • Pain: Some dogs may exhibit signs of pain, such as vocalization or reluctance to move, but the majority do not display pain.
  • Urinary and fecal incontinence: Loss of control over bladder and bowel function may occur in severe cases.
  • In some cases, dogs may lose deep pain sensation in the affected limbs or even feel no sensation at all in their rear paws. 

Diagnosis: Diagnosing fibrocartilaginous embolism in dogs typically involves a combination of clinical signs, neurological examination, and diagnostic imaging. Veterinarians may use techniques such as radiography (X-rays), myelography (contrast dye study of the spinal cord), or advanced imaging modalities like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to visualize the spinal cord and identify the location and extent of the embolism.

Treatment: There is no specific treatment to remove the fibrocartilaginous embolism itself. Treatment is mainly supportive and focused on managing the dog’s symptoms and providing supportive care. This may include:

  • Physical therapy: Rehabilitation exercises and physical therapy are typically recommended to help improve muscle strength and coordination and regain function.
  • Acupuncture is typically indicated to assist affected dogs.
  • Bladder management: If urinary or fecal incontinence occurs, supportive measures such as expressing the bladder or using diapers may be necessary. 
  • Pain medications may be prescribed to alleviate discomfort although it is uncommon.
  • Monitoring: Close monitoring of the dog’s neurological status is essential to assess for any improvement or progression of symptoms.

Prognosis: The prognosis for dogs with fibrocartilaginous embolism can vary depending on the severity of clinical signs and the extent of spinal cord damage. Many dogs may show gradual improvement over time with supportive care, while others may have permanent neurological deficits. Early diagnosis and prompt intervention can improve the likelihood of a more favorable outcome.

In conclusion, fibrocartilaginous embolism is a neurological condition that can cause sudden onset hind limb weakness or paralysis in dogs. While the condition can be serious, supportive care and management can help improve outcomes for affected dogs. Prompt veterinary evaluation and treatment are essential for optimizing the chances of recovery.

Elizabeth F. Baird, DVM, CVPP, CCRT, cVMA
Steele Pain Management & Rehabilitation Center

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