Paralysis in Cats

Michael Kearley, DVM
Written by:
Published: April 12, 2022
Paralysis in Cats

What is Paralysis in Cats?

Paralysis is the medical term for a loss of voluntary movement. A cat’s nervous system—made up of the brain, spinal cord and nerves—is much like a highway. The moving cars are the electrical signals sent from the brain to the rest of the body to tell it what to do: walk, jump, eat meow, etc. When that highly coordinated system is affected, the signals get lost or blocked. As a result, the affected body parts do not work as intended.

Paralysis and paresis often manifest as weakened or diminished movement, muscle fatigue, weak reflexes, decreased range of motion or decreased ability to perform certain motions. Paralysis can be broken down by body part:

  • Hemiparesis: weakness on one side of the body

  • Hemiplegia: inability to move one side of the body

  • Paraparesis: weakness in the back legs

  • Paraplegia: inability to move the back legs

  • Tetraparesis: weakness in all limbs

  • Tetraplegia: inability to move all limbs

Other body parts can also become weakened or paralyzed. Laryngeal paralysis is a relatively uncommon condition seen typically in older cats, where the nerves affecting the muscles that open and close the airway are affected. You may notice a change in your cat’s breathing or meow, or a coughing/gagging sound when your cat is eating or drinking.

Symptoms of Paralysis in Cats

Paralysis in cats can occur suddenly or become worse over time. You may notice the following:

  • A lack of movement in any part of the body, including head, neck and limbs

  • A wobbly gait

  • Falling down

  • Difficulty eating

  • Difficulty drinking

  • Difficulty urinating

  • Difficulty defecating

  • Trouble breathing

  • Dragging limbs across the floor while walking

Causes of Paralysis in Cats

Both complete and partial paralysis are essentially due to a blockage in the signaling pathway from the brain to the limbs or body parts. This can be caused by the following:

  • Cancer, either primary spine or brain cancer, or cancers originally found elsewhere that have spread to the spine or brain. Lymphosarcoma is the most common spinal tumor in cats.

  • Drugs and/or chemicals, such as

    • Hexachlorophene (disinfectant)

    • Succinylcholine (a neuromuscular blocking agent) which prevents the signal from the nerve from reaching the muscle

    • Pesticides

    • Antifreeze

  • Clot formation, either in the aorta or the spinal cord

  • Infections, such as

  • Intervertebral disc disease

  • Spinal trauma, caused by a motor vehicle accident, fall, projectile or attack

  • Toxins, such as

    • Botulism from eating uncooked or spoiled food

    • Marijuana

    • Tick bites

How Veterinarians Diagnose Paralysis in Cats

Your veterinarian will conduct a physical exam, including a more extensive neurological exam aimed at trying to find the portion of the nervous system most likely affected. Following this, your vet may recommend the following:

  • Blood work, urine testing, and X-rays to assess your cat’s overall condition, identify potential toxins and traumatic causes, and possibly screen for cancer.

  • CSF “tap,” in which a sample of your cat’s spinal fluid is evaluated for the presence of infection or cancer cells.

  • Advanced imaging, such as CT and/or MRI (often performed by a veterinary specialist) to identify spinal and brain disorders.

  • Muscle or nerve biopsies, in which samples of specific tissues are taken and reviewed under a microscope.

Treatment of Paralysis in Cats

Caring for paralyzed cats can be extremely challenging, even for the most conscientious owner. Therapy can be classified as either primary or secondary:

  • Primary treatment is aimed at eliminating or treating the underlying cause. For example, a spinal fracture will require surgery, medical management, and cage rest, whereas paralysis caused by a tick bite would require removal of the tick.

  • Secondary treatment is aimed at improving comfort, controlling pain and inflammation with medication and physical therapy.

Management of most cases is done through supportive care and careful attention. Your cat will most likely be hospitalized for several days.

After discharge, follow-up appointments and communication with the veterinary team will be vital to ensure that secondary complications (such as decubital ulcers, urinary tract infections, muscle wasting and pneumonia) do not occur and progress is noted. Frequent turning of the cat and appropriate bedding is helpful to prevent ulcers, and placing extra bedding or “doughnuts” under bony prominences is recommended.

Recovery and Management of Paralysis in Cats

Prognosis for recovery is often correlated to the presence of deep pain. This is a test that can be performed by a veterinarian to assess a cat’s ability to respond to a painful stimulus. The nerves that transmit this information are the most protected, and a lack of response indicates that the damage is extensive and severe enough that sensation will not return. In these cases, your veterinarian may discuss long-term measures including quality of life, emotional well-being and considerations for humane euthanasia.

For cats that do have a deep pain response ‑ and a more favorable prognosis ‑ recovery will be slow and taxing, not only for the cat but also for the pet parent. Keeping your cat as dry and clean as possible will help prevent secondary skin infections and frequent bladder expression can help prevent discomfort and urinary tract infections.

Physical therapy should be implemented where appropriate. Working with a certified rehabilitation veterinarian is often recommended. An individual therapy management plan will be created and the vet will work with you to teach home exercises to limit muscle atrophy, improve your cat’s comfort and restore range of motion. Stretching and massage, acupuncture and laser therapy are other avenues you can explore to alleviate your cat’s pain and discomfort.

Paralysis in Cats FAQs

What causes sudden paralysis in cats?

Other than traumatic injuries and toxins, the most common cause of acute paralysis in cats is feline aortic thromboembolism, or saddle thrombus. This is a painful condition in which your cat will suddenly become lame in the back legs. It is caused by a blood clot that has traveled down the aorta (most likely due to underlying heart disease) and becomes lodged at the point at which the aorta branches into the hind legs. Both legs are usually affected, but it can affect just one.  Blood supply is cut off to the limb(s) which will subsequently feel cold, appear bluish in color and experience muscle stiffness. 

Can a cat recover from hind leg paralysis?

As noted regarding saddle thrombus, depending on the severity of the paralysis and the severity of the underlying heart disease, some cats can recover, usually within several weeks to months. However, most cats with this condition may be euthanized given the poor prognosis and potential for recurring episodes and heart failure.

Can a cat recover from paralysis?

Depending on the underlying cause and if treated appropriately, some cats can regain function, though there may be lasting complications and long-term effects. The first several hours are the most critical, which is why it’s vital to seek veterinary care as soon as symptoms start. But if progress is seen, then it is generally recommended to continue with treatment. Sadly, some cats will be humanely euthanized as the prognosis is grave and return to function unlikely.

Can worms cause paralysis in cats?

Yes. Certain species of worms, such as roundworms and heartworms, can migrate through the nervous system and brain and cause paralysis.

Featured Image: iStock.com/Chalirmpoj Pimpisarn


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