Contributors: Fraser McConnell

 Species: Feline   |   Classification: Miscellaneous


Radiographic considerations

  • A low kV, high mAs technique will maximize contrast.
  • Detail screens and film can be used.
  • Tabletop radiography gives better detail than grids unless cat is very large.
  • Survey radiography is relatively insensitive for the diagnosis of many spinal conditions.
  • Myelography Radiography: myelography is required in most cases to confirm site of cord compression or disease.
  • At least 2 orthogonal projections need to be taken.
  • Positioning is extremely important as rotation and obliquity of the spine can make interpretation very difficult and may lead to erroneous diagnosis.
  • Due to geometric effects of the diverging primary beam there will be artifactual narrowing of the intervertebral discs at the periphery of the film.
  • For this reason multiple radiographs are required, centered on each region of the spine to avoid erroneous diagnosis of narrowed intervertebral discs.


  • Spinal radiography usually requires anesthesia to facilitate positioning.
  • Care needs to be taken moving patient with suspected vertebral fractures or luxations as muscle relaxation with anesthesia may result in fracture/luxation becoming unstable.


  • Investigation of neurological disease localized to spine.
  • Back or neck pain.
  • Investigation of FUO.
  • Investigation of certain tumors, eg lymphoma Lymphoma, myeloma Multiple myeloma, osteochondroma.


Radiographic anatomy

  • The spine is divivided into cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral and caudal segments.
  • The number of vertebrae is usually constant and normally divided:
    • 7 cervical   Spine: normal cervical spine - radiograph lateral  .
    • 13 thoracic   Spine: thoracic (normal) - lateral radiograph  .
    • 7 lumbar   Spine: normal lumbosacral - radiograph lateral  .
    • 3 sacral   Spine: normal lumbosacral - radiograph lateral  .
    • A variable number of coccygeal vertebrae.

Correct localization is vital and complete survey radiographs should not replace a full neurological examination.

Growth plate closures

  • The vertebrae (except C1 and C2) are formed from 5 ossification centers:
    • 1 for the centrum.
    • 1 for each neural arch.
    • 1 for each endplate.
  • The endplates of the vertebral bodies are not ossified at birth but become mineralized between 2 -8 weeks post-natally and are fused by approximately 9 months.
  • The neural arches that form the vertebral pedicles, laminae and dorsal spinous processes are separate at birth.
  • The axis forms from 7 ossification centers, the fusion times of which are variable:
    • Dens unites with body at 7 months.
    • Caudal epiphyses unite at 9 months.
  • The atlas originates from 3 primary ossification centers which unite at 4 months.

Transitional vertebrae

  • These show characteristics of adjacent segments.
  • Most commonly seen in lumbar and thoracic spine.
  • The last thoracic vertebra may develop a transverse process instead of a rib or the first lumbar vertebra may have a rib.
  • The 7th lumbar vertebra may articulate with the ilium or the first sacral vertebra may have a non-articulating transverse process like a lumbar vertebra with a remnant intervertebral disc.
  • Transitional vertebrae are often asymmetric.


  • The number, shape, position, margins and opacity of the vertebral borders should be scrutinized.
  • The size, shape and opacity of the intervertebral foramen should be assessed together with the width of the articular facet joint.
  • The width and opacification of the intervertebral disc space should be carefully assessed and compared with adjacent disc spaces.
  • The width of the vertebral foramen at the cranial and caudal ends of each vertebrae should be similar.
  • The opacity of the dorsal spinous processes should be assessed.

Vertebral canal

  • The vertebral canal should be gently curved and smooth.
  • There should be no steps or marked changes in diameter   Spine: L5-L6 dislocation - radiograph lateral  .
  • There is usually widening of the vertebral canal at the cervical intumescence at C6/C7 and lumbar intumescence at L4/L5   Spine: normal lumbosacral - radiograph lateral  .


  • Associated with deviation of the spine and may result in narrowing of the canal but often incidental.
  • May be failure of ossification of either lateral, vertical or dorsal half of the vertebra.

Spina bifida

  • Midline cleft in vertebral arch and may be absent or reduced size of dorsal spinous process Spina bifida.
  • May be associated with herniation of meninges, cord defects or incidental finding.

Wedge vertebra

  • Block vertebrae   Vertebra: congenital anomaly - radiograph lateral  result from failure of segmentation of somites and results in apparent fusion.
  • There may or may not be fusion of dorsal spinal processes and dorsal laminae or pedicle.
  • In some cases a vestigial disc space may be seen separating the vertebral bodies.
  • Block vertebrae may be normal length or short.
  • Abnormal block vertebrae are of no clinical significance but may lead to excess loading of adjacent vertebrae predisposing to disc degeneration.

Butterfly vertebrae

  • Butterfly vertebrae result from cleft through vertebral body in a sagittal plane.
  • Cranial and caudal end plates are funnel shaped.


  • Evaluate the entire film as other findings may help to narrow the differential diagnosis list.

Presence of fractured ribs may indicate trauma.


  • Congenital - abnormalities in the number of vertebrae are not uncommon.
  • It is important to recognize abnormalities in vertebrae number (to ensure accurate localization) if spinal surgery is contemplated.

Unless the entire spine is radiographed it is not possible to determine if there is an alteration in the total number of vertebrae.

  • The dens forms as a separate center of ossification and should not be mistaken for a fracture in young animals.
  • The intervertebral disc space of the thoracic vertebrae up to T10/T11 are narrower than the disc spaces of the lumbar and cervical spine. The C7T1 disc space is narrower than the opther cervical disc spaces.
  • The dorsal spinous process of the thoracic spine especially cranial vertebrae often have a mottled appearance and may be misinterpreted as lytic lesions.