What is the typical signal of a cat with IVDD?

Great question. We don't see IVDD a ton in cats, but if we do, the most common presentation or signalment will be in middle-aged to older cats. They tend to be neutered males and are a bit higher on the body condition score. Most often, they will actually have a lower lumbar disc herniation, which is a bit different than in dogs.

Hilary Levitin, DVM, DACVIM (Neurology)
Central Texas Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Hospital

What are the signs and symptoms of spinal disc problems in cats?

In cats, you'll see very similar symptoms as in dogs, and it's really going to depend upon where the problem is. Since cats tend to herniate discs in their lower spine, even though it's less common to see this problem in general in cats, you're going to see issues more referable to the lumbar or lumbosacral spine. That can look like weakness in the back legs. Sometimes it starts as even what looks like lameness if a nerve root is being pushed on. Other times you might see a cat look more plantigrade and dropped in their rear end. Additionally, you can see changes to their tail, so they might have a weak or even an immobilized or plegic tail. Typically, they are painful as well if they're examined by a veterinarian and when you apply pressure to that area.

How is IVDD in cats diagnosed?

To diagnose IVDD in a cat, you can do a screening radiograph. You cannot definitively diagnose IVDD on a radiograph, but if that happened to have been done at a primary care facility, you could look to see if there's any narrowing of the intervertebral disc space. You'll see those vertebral bodies a bit closer together than they should be. You may alternatively see actual mineralization of the inner vertebral disc in between those vertebral bodies. Again, that just tells you that the discs are degenerative. It doesn't definitively say there's a problem, so the only way to know for sure is by doing an MRI of the patient. This is of the utmost importance, especially since there are many other differentials for issues in the hind limbs of cats outside of IVDD.

What are the treatment options for cats with IVDD?

The treatment options for cats with IVDD depend upon the severity of the signs and what is feasible for the owner, so we can make a treatment plan that works for everyone. If you do have a pet that is the most severely affected and is completely unable to walk, whether they are severely periodic or actually paraplegic, oftentimes, then the best option is decompressive spinal surgery. Kitty cats can do very well with that if they're still able to feel their toes. Similar to dogs, the prognosis is very good with decompressive spinal surgery. I have done several back surgeries on cats somehow, even though it's rare, and I do feel that they bounce back pretty well. Cats tend to be resilient creatures. That being said, if they are still able to move and walk on their own, even though they are painful or otherwise periodic in their pelvic limbs, you can still consider conservative management options with medication and rest. It will just not come with as high of a success rate as decompressive spinal surgery. So there will be several factors to consider when we're trying to figure out the most fruitful treatment option for your cat.

What are good exercises for cats with IVDD?

That is a great question in that, a lot of times, if you are looking for an exercise to perform on your pet that has disc issues, that is best to be designed by a veterinary neurologist or a veterinary rehabilitation specialist because a lot of exercises are actually things that could make them feel worse, which almost seems counterintuitive. If you or I were weak, we'd think, "Oh my gosh, I have to get up. I have to get moving." But there are only so many things to do that are safe. A rehabber or a neurologist can walk you through safe exercises, which will usually consist of things as simple as assisted standing, letting them stand for as long as they can. They sit down eventually when they are too weak and then have them stand up again and do the exact same thing. Other safe exercises are actual little bicycle motions or passive range of motion in the back legs or even weight shifting exercises where they are standing up and shifting weight from one side to the next.

But again, it's very important to have a doctor, whether it's your primary care provider or rehab or a neurologist, provide those guidelines for your cat to make sure you're not doing anything that could A, harm them and B, ensure that they are comfortable enough to be doing those exercises, to begin with. Thank you so much for listening to this little snippet about feline inner vertebral disc disease, or IVDD. While it is not super common to see, we definitely do, so if you do have concerns about your pet having weakness in the back legs or the tail or pain in their back, it is absolutely warranted to see your primary care provider. That way, they can let you know if this is something high up on their list for your cat or if it is lower down. Maybe there are other things that we need to be looking at that are more common in kitty cats.

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