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What Is Intervertebral Disc Disease in Cats?

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Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) occurs when the cushioning discs between the vertebrae of the spinal column harden. IVDD in cats is rare, but it is a serious disorder that can paralyze the hind legs.

The Basics of IVDD in Cats

The spinal column is made up of individual bones called vertebrae. In between the vertebra are discs, which act as shock absorbers that protect the spine. They have a firm outer portion and a jelly-like inner section. With IVDD, discs harden due to degeneration or a hereditary condition. As they harden, the inner material pushes out (or herniates) into the area of the spinal cord.

The herniated disc presses on the nerves running through the spinal cord. In milder cases, the cat may have some spinal pain and walk with an unsteady gait. In more serious cases, the cat might experience partial or total paralysis in the hind legs.

IVDD is more frequently associated with dogs than cats. It’s prevalent in certain breeds, including Dachshunds, Beagles, Shih Tzu, Lhasa Apso, and Pekingese, where disc compression can start as young as 1 or 2 years old. While IVDD is not seen as often in cats, our feline friends can suffer from this condition.

black cat lying on a cream carpet with his paws crossed

Causes of IVDD in Cats

IVDD happens when discs become calcified or fibrous over a period of time. They eventually break down and bulge out. Cats of any breed or age can have IVDD, although it occurs more often in older cats.

Discs can also burst due to a forceful impact, such as hitting the ground after falling out of a high window. Remember to secure your screens to help keep your cat from tumbling out and suffering from serious injuries, which you may hear referred to as high-rise syndrome.

Signs Your Cat May Have IVDD

The most common symptom of IVDD is pain along the spine or around the neck. Your cat might wince, yowl, or pull away if you pet them near the affected area. Other signs of IVDD in cats include:

  • Pain and weakness in the hind legs
  • Reduced activity level
  • Unwillingness to jump
  • Back and neck muscle spasms
  • Hunched, tensed back
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

You might notice behavioral changes in your cat as well, such as turning their nose up at their food bowl or hiding more than usual. They may also stop grooming themselves properly, especially if it’s painful to reach certain spots. This can result in a matted or greasy looking coat.

How IVDD is Diagnosed

Diagnosing IVDD in cats involves conducting a neurologic exam to help identify where the injury is located. Your veterinarian will palpate the muscles around the neck and along the spine to see where it hurts. If your cat is experiencing paralysis in their hind legs, they will also check for lack of pain response in those limbs.

X-rays can be helpful since they allow your veterinarian to rule out other disorders that can cause similar symptoms, such as cancer, arthritis, or a spinal fracture. However, X-rays won’t show the site of a herniated disc, so advanced imaging techniques are typically required. Your veterinarian may order an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or CT (computed tomography) scan to see where the spine is being compressed.

They may also suggest myelography in which radio-opaque dye is injected into the fluid around the spinal cord of an anesthetized cat. This test offers a clear look at the spinal cord so the compressed area can be identified.

domestic shorthair gray cat with a red collar and red tag

Treatment for IVDD in Cats

IVDD can be treated using medication and rest. More severe cases will require surgery.

Non-surgical Treatment

Milder cases of IVDD in cats may be managed conservatively with anti-inflammatory medications, pain relievers, and steroids. If the cat has neck and back spasms, they may benefit from treatments including acupuncture and muscle relaxants.

These cats must also typically be confined in a crate or cage to prevent further damage for up to six weeks. After they’ve rested for a period of time, they can gradually resume normal activity. Your veterinarian will provide you with specific instructions for your cat.

Surgical Treatment

In more severe cases of IVDD, a surgery called a laminectomy might be the best option. During this surgery, the veterinarian removes the portion of the bony vertebrae in the compressed area along with any visible herniated disc material.

Your cat’s prognosis will depend on how badly the spinal cord was damaged. It can be improved if the surgery is done sooner rather than later. Proper rehabilitative care, which may include physical therapy, can also help ensure a smooth recovery.

Preventing IVDD in Cats

It’s not always possible to prevent IVDD, but there are things you can do to improve your cat’s overall health and safety.

  • Cat-proof your home. Address potential hazards, including windows and outdoor areas like screened-in porches and balconies where your cat could fall.
  • Maintain their overall health. Feed your cat a nutritious diet and make sure they get plenty of exercise. Also, go easy on the treats, which can be high in calories. You want your cat to stay at a healthy weight for their breed and age.
  • Boost their wellness routine. Take time to focus on your cat’s wellness, such as relaxing them with soothing music or giving them a massage. This can help reduce anxiety and keep your pet mentally and physically healthy.
  • Visit the veterinarian regularly. This allows your doctor to spot conditions like IVDD in the early stages, increasing your cat’s chances of a full recovery. It also allows them to track your cat’s weight, which can contribute to IVDD.

Since there’s no way you can completely protect your pet from IVDD, you might want to consider pet health insurance. Diagnosis and treatment for IVDD can be expensive, especially if it includes advanced imaging, surgery, and hospitalization. Pet insurance can help you manage those costs.

Check out our pet health insurance buyer’s guide to help decide if coverage is right for your cat.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.


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