PetSavers – Important clue for understanding phantom scratching in syringomyelia identified in BSAVA PetSavers funded student research project

13 December 2017

University of Surrey veterinary student Zoe Nalborczyk was the recipient of a BSAVA PetSavers Award in recognition of her investigation into the MRI characteristics of phantom scratching in dogs with syringomyelia. This research was undertaken at Fitzpatrick Referrals in partnership with the University of Surrey.

Zoe used over 5000 measurements from Cavalier King Charles Spaniels that were treated at Fitzpatrick Referrals for syringomyelia, a complex condition that affects the brain and spinal cord in dogs. Her results showed that phantom scratching is associated with syringomyelia in the mid-cervical (neck) spinal cord, which extends to and involves the outer upper edge of the spinal cord in a region called the superficial dorsal horn. The superficial dorsal horn receives sensory information from the skin and is an important relay for the sensations of pain and itch, and in some way syringomyelia damage to this region results in a hyperactive scratch reflex.

Phantom scratching is characterised by a repetitive scratching action towards the shoulder. This occurs spontaneously and is triggered by touch, walking and excitement. Affected dogs are often not able to walk on a leash or wear a collar. Phantom scratching is a difficult problem to treat and is hypothesised to occur because of an over active ‘scratching’ neural network. It is similar to fictive scratch, a phenomenon related to severe spinal cord injury in quadrupeds that is studied by many scientists as a model to understand complex and coordinated muscle contracts such as walking.

Over the past few months, Zoe has continued her study by microscopic examination of the nerve cells in this area in a project that is also funded by BSAVA PetSavers.

Dr Clare Rusbridge, Chief Neurologist at Fitzpatrick Referrals and Reader in Veterinary Neurology at University of Surrey, supervised the project. Clare commented: Better understanding the mechanism behind phantom scratching means improving treatment of affected dogs and we are now translating these findings into a clinical treatment for affected dogs.”

PetSavers is the UK’s leading veterinary charity and a division of the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA). Funded entirely through donations, PetSavers is dedicated to improving the health of companion pets by relieving the distress and pain caused by diseases.PetSavers Grant Awarding Committee Chair, Dr Julian Hoad BSc(Hons) BVetMed HonMBVNA MRCVS of Crossways Veterinary Group said: “PetSavers is proud to have supported this important research into a common and debilitating condition. We have been fortunate to have had a really motivated student, led by a world-leading team. The results will certainly help our ability to treat dogs affected by syringomyelia.”

The findings of this study are available to read on the BMC Veterinary Research website here.