Fibrocartilaginous Embolus/Emboli (FCE) in Dogs

My veterinarian diagnosed my dog with FCE. What is FCE?

fce_dogsFCE is an abbreviation for “fibrocartilaginous embolus/emboli” (“emboli” is the plural of embolus). Fibrocartilage is connective tissue found primarily in the joints. An embolus is material that travels through the circulation and blocks a blood vessel. Another term for FCE is “fibrocartilaginous embolic myopathy,” with the word “myopathy” describing a problem with the spinal cord. Accordingly, an FCE is the acute death of part of the spinal cord, caused by the embolus of fibrocartilaginous material. The material blocks arteries and/or veins in the spinal cord and may originate in an intervertebral disk or the marrow found within a vertebral body. The precise way the material gets into the vasculature is unknown.

Spinal X-rays are usually normal. The most common diagnostic test for FCE is MRI.

 

Is this condition more common in some breeds than others? Does age have anything to do with FCE?

Giant and large breed dogs are most commonly affected, and it appears that FCE may more commonly occur in males than females. Miniature schnauzers and Shelties are overrepresented among these patients. Most patients are young adults between 3 and 5 years old, but the condition has been recorded in dogs as young as 4 months and as old as 10 years of age.

 

My dog wasn’t doing anything special.  What is the usual sequence of events for these dogs?

It’s most common for an FCE to occur following a mild trauma or during vigorous exercise, although some cases are reported in dogs that are simply walking. FCE occurs very suddenly, and the affected dogs typically cry out in pain. Most often the pain subsides within a few minutes, and signs of weakness and/or paralysis develop fairly quickly as well.  These dogs are generally stable within 12 to 24 hours.

 

My dog’s pain seemed to be gone, but her right rear leg was useless to her when I took her to her veterinarian.  Is it common for only one leg to be affected? What other symptoms do these dogs exhibit?

It is common for the dog with FCE to be relatively comfortable within a short time. In general, the nervous system deficits are localized to one side of the body, and the other side of the body is either mildly affected or completely normal. Occasionally, the embolic lesion is positioned in such a way that both sides of the dog’s body are affected. The level of the dog’s dysfunction depends upon what level of the spinal cord is damaged, and the signs may be as simple as incoordination or as serious as paralysis of the affected limbs.

 

How is FCE treated?

Most dogs who experience FCE are hospitalized in the acute phases in order to perform diagnostic tests that look for and rule out other causes for acute-onset weakness or paralysis. If the dog is incapable of walking, then intensive nursing care is in order to keep the dog on a padded surface and to turn them frequently to prevent pressure sores. It is important to encourage these dogs to move and walk as soon as it is possible for them to do so. 

"There is no specific
medical treatment for FCE."

There is no specific medical treatment for FCE.  Instead the emphasis is to provide good supportive care as well as physical assistance. Using assistive devices like a lightweight harness with a handle along the back, a fabric sling, or a walking cart can facilitate both healing and early restoration of mobility. Physical rehabilitation, including hydrotherapy in an underwater treadmill, can also help these dogs regain strength.

Once other causes of weakness or paralysis are ruled out, activity should be encouraged to prevent, or at least minimize, muscle atrophy. Most improvement for these dogs occurs within 3-4 months, but every dog is different.

 

Do I need to worry about this happening again? Are there any other potential complications?

FCE is unlikely to recur. Depending upon the lesion, a dog may have difficulty emptying her bladder, requiring assistance and vigilance in case of a urinary tract infection.  Also depending upon the lesion, the dog may have stool incontinence.

If the clinical signs of FCE progress during the initial phases of the disease, this indicates progressive destruction of the spinal cord that is not reversible and, unfortunately, euthanasia may be indicated.

Recovery from the weakness or paralysis caused by FCE is slow and gradual and often reaches a plateau. Some dogs appear to make a complete recovery. In any event, your veterinary health care team can assist with guidance and support following FCE.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CRPP

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