Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is common and well recognized in dogs, particularly dachshunds and beagles, but it is frequently underdiagnosed in cats. It is not as common in cats. The incidence of IVDD in the cat is less than 1% whereas in the dog it is about 2%.
Disc disease is more common in middle aged to older cats and the signs can be variable. Some cats will show stiff hind limbs, inability to jump up on the couch or bed, sensitivity around the hind end when petted or touched in that area, decreased grooming behaviour, lack of appetite, decreased litter box use, constipation or incontinence. Some cats can have signs of dragging one leg or knuckling. These are called neurological deficits.
The clinical signs that are seen from disc disease result because the disc--the little cushion between the vertebrae--has degenerated, calcified or become infected. If this is a chronic state then the nerves coming off the spinal cord are compressed by the disc bulging and trapping the nerves. This can occur anywhere in the spinal column but the thoracic area (behind the ribs) and the lumbar area (low back) are the most common. Sometimes in the lumbosacral area (down by the tail) the spinal canal can become arthritic and narrow. This narrowing is called stenosis and the stenosis puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves and causes pain when raising the tail or walking.
Your veterinarian will want to rule out other more common diseases such as arthritis, tumors, infections, blood clots or embolisms before making a final diagnosis for IVDD. To make this diagnosis requires radiographs (xrays) and frequently an MRI. If your cat is having signs of neurological deficits (knuckling, muscle atrophy, incoordination) then he or she may have to see a veterinary neurologist.
Treatment and prognosis depends on location and cause of the problem. If the affected area is in the lumbosacral region, the prognosis is usually very good with medical therapy alone. If the cat is paralyzed however, surgery is indicated. Disc problems higher up in the thoracic region, often require surgery.
Medical treatment can include non steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) and a medication called gabapentin. Sometimes these cats also need antibiotics if it appears there is a disc infection. Alternative therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic (cautiously and only by someone well trained in treating disc problems in animals), physical therapy, exercise therapy and herbal therapy can be of great benefit to the right patient. Because many cats are sensitive to NSAIDs (aspirin-type drugs) my choice is usually an herbal and acupuncture for these patients. Pet Wellbeing has a great formula called Agile Joints (link is here: http://bit.ly/rHuph8).
If you have a cat with back end pain be sure to have your veterinarian look at the cat and consider disc disease. It may not be common but if your kitty is suffering from it, you need to know!