A spinal injury after a road accident in a cat: is recovery from paralysis possible?

ginger cat

She was brought in to see me at once: after examining her carefully, I explained to her owners that she had suffered a serious spinal injury.

I took a series of  X-ray pictures, to identify the precise nature of her injuries. The first, survey radiograph seemed normal, but when close-up views were taken of one suspicious area, a small but very significant abnormality was visible. She had fractured one of the bones of her spine. A wedge of bone had broken off the base of one of her vertebrae, the cube-like bones that make up the spinal column. Despite this fracture, she had been lucky, and the alignment of her spine had not been disturbed.

The spinal cord carries the nerve supply to the rear half of the body, including the hind limbs. It travels down in the centre of the backbone, protected inside a narrow tunnel that is formed by the end-to-end positioning of the many small spinal bones, each containing a hole that lines up with the adjacent bones on either side. As you can imagine, if one of those bones is broken and moved out of alignment with the other bones, the spinal cord in the tunnel is usually completely torn in half. This results in complete and permanent paralysis.

In Topsy’s case, one of the bones that makes up the wall of the tunnel had been broken, but it had not moved out of alignment. This meant that although her spinal cord had been damaged in the accident, there was a possibility that it might not have been completely severed. It may have been crushed, bruised and twisted, but it may not have been permanently damaged.

To evaluate the extent of her problem, I then carried out a detailed neurological examination was carried out. This involves systematically testing a tick list of reflexes and nerve function tests. The examination showed that Topsy had some movement in her right back leg, and she miaowed loudly when I pinched the toes of both back legs. This meant that, crucially, she still had sensation in her feet: her spinal cord was able to send messages from her back legs to her brain. This meant that although her spinal cord may have been damaged, it had not been torn in two: there was a chance that she could make a recovery.

When I returned Topsy to her cage, she dragged herself into her litter tray and passed urine on her own. This was an excellent sign, since it meant that her brain was able to send voluntary messages to her bladder. It was another sign of continued functioning of at least part of her spinal cord.

At this stage, there a ninety per cent probability that Topsy would improve with simple rest and time. If we could confine her to a cage for several weeks, there was a good chance that the broken piece of bone in her back would gradually weld back into place, without the need for surgery. We would need to monitor her nerve function very carefully, but with continued luck, Topsy would be walking again within a month.

If there had been no feeling in Topsy’s toes, and if she had not been able to pass urine, the picture would have been much bleaker. She would have had to be referred to a specialist centre for MRI scans and possible complex surgery, and even then, the chance of a full recovery would not have been high.

As it was, Topsy went home in a large cage that will be her home until she is better. One week into her recovery, she is already using both back legs. She is unlikely to have such a serious accident again, but if she does, her owners have made sure of one thing. They have taken out pet insurance for her, so that if she’s less lucky next time, the high costs of specialist referral work will be covered. Hopefully, it won’t be needed: one serious road accident in a lifetime is more than enough for any cat.


4 thoughts on “A spinal injury after a road accident in a cat: is recovery from paralysis possible?

  1. Hello,
    I found a stray cat at the street. It was apperantly hit by a car or something.
    It is 7-8 moyts old I think.
    It was not moving and back legs were in horible condition.
    I took her to veterinary clinic, stayed one night. Next day they said they can’t do anything and I took it to a larger animal hospital. There they examined by x-ray and MR.
    They said there is a crack in one of the bones of her spine.
    They made a surgery and put a platinum pin or so.
    One month later they tokk the platinum off.
    The cat can’t use her back legs.
    Her front legs are normal she can drag herself.
    She urinates herself.
    I make exercises to back legs , when I do this she streches her lehs .
    Back legs are like a stick she can’t bend them. I can bend slowly.
    Can you describe mu how to make exercises. I try some moves but ı don’t really know how to do it.
    İs there any supplemental drugs or foods to help her recover.
    I need any kind of recommendation

    Have a nice day,..

  2. My cat yesterday got picked on by my other house cat which was a fight and after that she couldn’t walk and was dragging her back legs and the right foot seems more dead than the left took her to the vet they r guessing spinal cord injury she is eating as long as I serve her.but just can’t get around on her own is on Prednisone for a few days I’m worried and my question is will she walk again they never mentioned that I’m trying to find info on this as much as I can.

    1. Hi Charlene, poor girl! There is a large possibility that she will walk – the medication will help and is there is inflammation around the spinal cord it may take some time to subside. You can also gently move her legs and massage them as a bit of helpful physiotherapy.

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