Fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE) is an obstruction of spinal cord vessels causing the animal to have difficulty walking and/or paralysis of one limb. It commonly affects giant and large breed dogs of any age, often occurring during vigorous exercise or trauma. The embolism can occur at any point in the spinal cord. The onset of clinical signs, such as difficulty placing a paw right side up or not using the leg at all, occurs within minutes or hours of incidence. Initially, the injury is very painful but subsides as neurologic signs worsen. All clinical signs occur within 12-24 hours and will not progress after this period.
Radiographs or a myelogram (a radiographic dye study of the spinal cord), if taken shortly after occurrence of clinical signs, may show swelling at the site of injury. An MRI may be more diagnostic than radiographs; however, they are not readily available to most veterinarians and are expensive for the client. An accurate history and complete exam are extremely important in determining the cause of the neurologic signs.
There is no cure or surgery to remedy FCE. Recovery often depends on the severity of clinical signs in addition to the location of the embolism. Treatment consists of cage rest, physical therapy exercises, and time. Often no improvement is seen in the first 14 days and recovery is unlikely after 30 days. The prognosis is better for animals that have retained some function; however, it is unlikely that any animal will return to full function. Normally, FCE animals need extensive home care.