Spinal Malformation in the Neck of Cats

By PetMD Editorial on Jan. 12, 2009

Atlantoaxial Instability in Cats

Atlantoaxial instability results from a malformation in the first two vertebrae in the neck. This causes the spinal cord to compress and results in pain, or even debilitation. The disorder affects cats, but is generally found in smaller breeds and is uncommon in older cats. To ensure the best possible chance for a full recovery, it is important to have your cat treated once an occurrence or sign of distress is observed.


Symptoms and Types


Cats suffering from atlantoaxial instability may collapse frequently or may suffer from paralysis, depending on the severity of the spinal cord injury. Many cats also exhibit severe neck and back pain and a lack of activity.




The most common cause of atlantoaxial instability is an abnormal formation of ligaments in the cat's vertebrae, often leading to fractures. The formation may also be the consequence of trauma due to an accident.




Your veterinarian will look for signs of trauma, seizures, tumors (neoplasia), severe exercise intolerance, and disk herniation. An X-ray or radiograph of your cat's spine may be taken to see if there are any injuries to the neck or spine. In addition to radiographs, CAT scans (computed tomography) may be used to view the soft tissue structures in your cat’s neck and spine. If this disorder goes untreated, it often will lead to acute spinal cord trauma, respiratory arrest, and possibly even death.






If your cat only experiences mild neck pain, a brace and confinement may be recommended. But, if your cat is experiencing neck pain along with other neurological symptoms, surgery is often the best course of action. The dorsal (top) approach involves the use of a wire or other synthetic material to fix the vertebral abnormalities. The ventral (underside) approach involves the use of a bone graft to repair the damage. The ventral approach is often considered the more stable approach in damage repair.


Living and Management


For the best chance of recovery, it is recommended that you have your cat treated as quickly as possible after the initial distress has been observed, and immediately after a trauma has occurred. If surgery is prescribed, younger cats will generally experience a full recovery when movement is restricted post-surgery. This is usually done with cage rest – keeping the cat in a cage, or enclosed space – so that the cat cannot overexert itself or re-injure itself. Physical rehabilitation following treatment is equally important for a full recovery, benefiting neurological functions as well.




As most cases are present at birth (congenital), preventative measures are limited.

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