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Cat Paralysis

Has your cat lost their ability to move their back legs, all four legs, or another part of their body? They may be suffering from a type of paralysis. However, cats can also suffer from laryngeal paralysis — a disorder of the upper airway. Our Central Illinois vets share information about the condition.

Understanding Cat Paralysis

When it comes to your kitty's ability to move, there are a couple of different types of paralysis cat parents should know about. 

Sudden or Gradual Paralysis

A cat can suddenly or gradually become paralyzed for more than a dozen reasons. Here are a few of the most common causes of damage to a cat's spinal column: 

  • Traumatic injury (car accident, fall, fight)
  • Cryptococcus infection
  • Stroke
  • Toxoplasmosis
  • Peritonitis
  • Infection in the spine, or in bones or tissue near the spinal column
  • Slipped discs damaging or pinching the nearby nerves
  • Inflammation around the spine placing pressure on nearby nerves
  • Tick paralysis is a condition caused by neurotoxins found in the saliva of ticks, transferred to the pet when the tick latches on for a period of time
  • Tumors in the spine or brain that place pressure on nearby nerves
  • Malformation of the spine or individual vertebrae
  • Nerve damage caused by toxins such as botulism
  • Obstruction of an artery restricting proper blood flow to the affected body part

Complete & Partial Paralysis

Normally, your cat's nerves are constantly sending messages from his spinal cord to his brain that trigger movement in the body. If these nerve signals are interrupted, paralysis can occur. 

Complete paralysis will leave your cat completely unable to move their legs, tail or other parts, while partial paralysis (paresis) is the lack of full control over a given body part. 

As you might expect, complete paralysis will be obvious (and alarming) for pet parents to notice. Paresis is characterized by symptoms such as slow-motion movements, weakness, reluctance to move or twitching. 

Cats can also experience permanent or temporary paralysis.

Diagnosing Complete & Partial Paralysis in Cats

As your vet works to diagnose your cat's condition, they'll work with you to find out whether your cat may have experienced a fall or sustained another sudden traumatic injury - potentially in a car accident or encounter with another animal that's caused injury to their spinal column. 

This will mean providing your vet with a recent history of your cat's symptoms, whether their onset was sudden or gradual, and whether the severity of the symptoms has fluctuated. 

The vet will conduct a full physical examination, including gentle manipulation of the affected limb(s), and potentially test to determine whether your cat has a pain response. Further diagnostic testing might include a CT scan, MRI imaging or X-rays. 

Treating Complete & Partial Paralysis in Cats

Treatment for complete or partial paralysis in cats will depend upon the cause of the paralysis and the likelihood of whether it is a temporary paralysis that your cat will be able to recover from.

If an infection is the cause of your cat's complete or partial paralysis treatment will include antibiotics to fight the infection. If an injury is causing your cat's paralysis anti-inflammatory medications may be prescribed to help reduce pressure on the spinal column.

Cats with full or partial paralysis will require considerable home care. Your vet will take the time to discuss how best to help your kitty, as well as your cat's prognosis and best next steps.

Laryngeal Paralysis

Confusingly, laryngeal paralysis—while somewhat rare—is a serious condition that can also be seen in cats. However, laryngeal paralysis is a disorder of the upper airway that occurs when the cartilages of the larynx do not open and close normally during respiration resulting in gradually intensifying breathing difficulties.

In the early stages, laryngeal paralysis in cats is characterized by a noise that is created when the walls of the airway do not open as normal when your cat breathes in. As the condition becomes more severe the walls of the windpipe may be drawn inward as your cat breathes in causing a narrowing of the windpipe and in some cases total blockage leading to suffocation.

Signs of Cat Laryngeal Paralysis

If your cat is suffering from laryngeal paralysis, symptoms may include:

  • Increased panting
  • Panting even when at rest
  • A raspy, or hoarse sounding voice 

In more advanced cases, pet parents may notice one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Obvious signs of working hard to breathe (sides moving in and out with effort)
  • Anxious or panicked facial expression
  • Chest vigorously expanding and contracting to breathe
  • Panting with lips pulled back as if smiling and tongue out
  • Noise when your cat is breathing
  • Tongue darker red or purple
  • Reluctance to be touched or handled

If your cat is showing any of the symptoms above, urgent veterinary care is required! Contact your vet right away or head to the nearest animal emergency hospital.

Treatment for Laryngeal Paralysis in Cats

Your vet's first priority will be to stabilize your cat's condition. This may involve oxygen therapy, external cooling (cats with laryngeal paralysis overheat quickly), sedation, and possibly intubation to temporarily assist with breathing.

For cats with laryngeal paralysis, the condition will not clear up on its own. Once your feline friend's condition is stabilized, your vet will discuss next steps with you. A surgical technique called Unilateral Arytenoid Lateralization or “Tieback” has produced promising results. In this surgery, one side of the airway is tied back to allow air to flow more freely into the lungs. 

Other surgical options may be recommended if a Unilateral Arytenoid Lateralization is not suitable for your kitty.

Recovery of Paralysis in Cats

Prognosis for your cat's potential recovery will be determined by the condition's cause and severity. In some cases such as severe paralysis or damage, healing may be unlikely or impossible. If your cat is experiencing permanent paralysis, you and your vet will discuss options and consider your pet's quality of life. 

If healing and recovery are possible, it will be critical to follow schedules for medications and physical therapy. The recovery process will be slow and lengthy, but typically cat parents should start to see improvement over the course of 1 to 2 months. This period may include an extended hospital stay if your cat requires intense care you are unable to provide at home. Frequent followup with your veterinarian will also be important.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Do you suspect your cat is suffering from paralysis or another serious medical condition? Contact our Central Illinois vets today. We can diagnose this or other health issues. Contact us for emergency care right away.

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