What is a fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE)?

A fibrocartilaginous embolism is a spinal cord stroke or injury that occurs when there is a blockage in a blood vessel within the spinal cord. This is usually caused when a fragment of intervertebral disc material obstructs the blood supply to the spinal cord, causing the surrounding area of the spinal cord to die.

The condition is more common in dogs and, while it can occur in cats, it is much rarer.

What are the symptoms of a fibrocartilaginous embolism?

In both dogs and cats, symptoms and diagnosis of FCE are normally quite sudden, and the condition is often caused by an accident, minor trauma or physical exercise. Normally, the first signs of FCE will be weakness in one side of the body, while your pet may also yelp or cry out, either due to anxiety or pain.

While clinical signs of a spinal stroke in pets can vary, symptoms and diagnostic criteria can include:

  • Sudden, severe pain that decreases over time
  • Leg weakness
  • A wobbly or uncoordinated gait
  • Partial or complete paralysis of a rear limb

If you think your pet is suffering from FCE, it’s important to seek immediate care, as this will help to improve the chances of a more successful recovery.

Fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE) in dogs

Most commonly, a canine fibrocartilaginous embolism affects giant and large dogs, such as German Shepherds and Irish Wolfhounds, but is also seen in smaller dogs, such as Miniature Schnauzers and Shelties.

However, this is often attributed to the condition, Hyperlipidemia, which is an umbrella term that refers to an acquired or genetic disorder resulting in high levels of cholesterol in the blood. It’s also important to note that, while it may be rarer, FCE can occur in dogs of any size.

Fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE) in cats

A fibrocartilaginous embolism in cats is much rarer, but still possible. The condition has very similar symptoms in cats to those in dogs:

  • Vocalisation of pain or confusion
  • Aggressiveness
  • Restlessness
  • Loss of balance or unsteadiness
  • Inability to use one or more legs
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased sleep

How is FCE diagnosed?

To prevent permanent damage, it’s essential that FCE is diagnosed and treated quickly. However, there are many other spinal conditions that can cause similar symptoms, and so it’s important to correctly diagnose the issue. There are a number of diagnostic options, including:

A full medical history

This includes a physical examination along with any behavioural, activity or appetite changes.

Blood work

This is to gain a clearer picture of overall health, and to eliminate any other conditions.


These are used to check for other injuries or abnormalities, such as a spinal fracture.

A spinal tap or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis

These may need to be collected to check for the presence of any inflammation, infectious or cancerous cells or any other disorders.


This is a special x-ray under general anesthesia during which contrast dye is injected to look for spinal problems including any swelling or tumors.

Advanced Imaging

Advanced imaging scans, such as a Computed Tomography scan (CT scan) or Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan (MRI scan) provides a detailed view and clearer information for a more accurate diagnosis


How is FCE treated?

Unfortunately, there is no specific cure for FCE, but it is possible for your pet to make a recovery and get back on their feet. While specific treatment for the condition depends on the case, it usually revolves around rehabilitation, supportive care and physical assistance. Our veterinary neurosurgery specialists will be able to determine the best course of action for your pet.

Physical therapy and rehabilitation

Your specialist may suggest certain veterinary physiotherapy treatments, such as hydrotherapy or massage in order to maintain flexibility and mobility and improve strength and stability over time.

Physical assistance

Your pet may require specialist mobility slings, harnesses or other aids to help with their recovery and healing. It is important to encourage light activity too in order to minimise the risk of muscle atrophy.

Home care

Ensuring your pet is comfortable and happy at home is a very important part of recovery. From ensuring your pet receives the help it needs to go to the bathroom and get up or down stairs to offering support with stretching to improve mobility, your pet may require additional help for months after their diagnosis.

What’s the prognosis?

Generally, once your pet recovers from a fibrocartilaginous embolism, it is unlikely that the condition will occur again. As with many spinal issues, relapses or flare-ups can occur, but initial recovery will normally take anything between several weeks to several months. Mobility should improve over time but our specialist team can help to provide assistance and guidance during the recovery process.

If you’re a pet owner and your dog or cat has FCE, we are here for you every step of the way during this troubling time. Here at Dogwood Referrals, we have a specialist team of veterinary professionals who love animals just as much as you do. We prioritise the wellbeing of your pets and work closely with you to determine the right course of action that’s in their best interest.

If you’re a referring vet and want to get in touch with us regarding a fibrocartilaginous embolism case, use our simple referral form or get in touch with us today.