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What Pet Parents Should Consider With a Paralyzed Cat

It can be scary when something sudden and unexpected happens, which is often how feline paralysis occurs, but what is feline paralysis, and how do you care for a paralyzed cat?

Dr. Bethany Hsia

June 18, 2023

Many conditions and ailments can affect our beloved furry companions, and sometimes it’s hard to recognize when something is wrong. Cats, in particular, are great at hiding when they’re not feeling well. However, some conditions are hard to miss, even with a more elusive cat.

For example, when a cat has suddenly lost mobility in their legs or body. If you notice this has happened to your cat, your first instinct may be to panic. It can be scary when something sudden and unexpected happens, which is often how feline paralysis occurs, but what is feline paralysis, and how do you care for a paralyzed cat?

A Brief Overview of Feline Paralysis

Feline paralysis is a severe condition in which a cat cannot voluntarily move a part or parts of their body. Depending on the cause and location, the paralysis may be characterized by stiff, rigid muscles or by limp and floppy muscles; and the paralysis may change and advance involving more body parts than at first. Feline paralysis should be considered an emergency requiring urgent medical attention.

Common Causes

Feline paralysis is usually a sign of a serious underlying condition or a traumatic injury.

Trauma

Traumatic injuries can arise due to a fight, fall, or other accident- these may lead to fractures, nerve damage, or spinal cord injury. Usually pet parents know when such an incident has occurred as there are often other injuries or they may have seen or heard the event. If a traumatic injury has occurred it is important to have a veterinarian assess the extent of the injuries as significant internal damage may go unnoticed.

Saddle Thrombus

One of the more common conditions leading to feline paralysis is arterial thromboembolism commonly called “saddle thrombus”. This condition arises when a blood clot lodges into a branching region of the aorta and compromises the blood flow to the hind limbs, leading the cat to a dangerous state of shock.

The primary goal in treating a saddle thrombus is stabilizing the cat, but it is also important to investigate and address the cause of the blood clot. Heart disease is often implicated but cancer may also cause thromboembolic events. Saddle thrombus episodes are both sudden and dramatic with the cat crying out in pain.

Tick Paralysis

Another cause of feline paralysis is due to ticks. Tick paralysis is also dramatic; but happily the drama stems from the resolution after treatment. Certain species of tick can transmit a neurotoxin via the saliva of their bite. In the United States, the neurotoxin of the Ixodes and Dermacentor species of ticks causes a paralysis that begins in the hind limbs and advances to the front limbs and up toward the nose if not corrected. Onset of paralysis is usually several days to over a week after the tick attaches to the cat.

Treatment for tick paralysis begins with the rapid killing and removal of the ticks. Then supportive care is provided until the cat recovers. Often these patients make a full recovery with improvement beginning within the first few hours of the tick removal. You can prevent tick paralysis in your cat by applying tick control products; however, it is important to note that many tick control products are not safe for cats. Unless the label specifically says that it is for use in our feline friends, assume that it is toxic to cats.

Toxins

Not all toxins will cause paralysis, however some accidental poisonings can cause neurologic changes that may result in feline paralysis. Such as rodenticide ingestion, accidental ingestion of human medications, and several types of houseplants- most notably lilies. Cats are often curious and incorrigible when it comes to getting into things. It is important to make sure that items which may pose a danger to our cats remain locked away from prying paws.

What To Consider if Your Cat Is Paralyzed

Caring for a paralyzed cat can be difficult. But you are not alone. Your veterinarian will be able to help you ensure that your cat receives the best care and has the best quality of life possible for their condition.

Getting to a Diagnosis

The first step will be having a veterinarian examine your pet and determine the cause and severity of your cat’s paralysis. It is unlikely your veterinarian will be able to come to you urgently so you may have to transport your pet to an urgent care or emergency veterinary facility. Calling ahead will help you confirm their location and availability and help them be prepared for your arrival. When preparing to move a paralyzed cat do not assume he or she will not bite or scratch. It is likely they are frightened, painful, and not aware that you are trying to help.

Prognosis

Once your veterinarian has assessed your cat and determined the reason for the paralysis they can begin to paint a picture of what to expect. In severe cases the vet may recommend euthanasia. Much of what the future holds will depend on the cat’s response to treatment and the severity of the underlying condition which led the cat to become paralyzed. This means your vet may begin with a very guarded prognosis but hopefully will be able to improve it with time and more diagnostic information.

Ongoing Supportive Care

Your cat’s need for ongoing supportive care will depend on the root cause of the paralysis and their personal recovery. Again some underlying conditions, such as tick paralysis, can be resolved relatively quickly without much need for ongoing care. Conversely, some conditions may take weeks or months of supportive care; such as assistance with feeding, grooming, waste elimination, and mobility. In some cases, the patient may gain back some strength and movement but may never return to full function and yet others, like saddle thrombus, may reoccur after the initial recovery.

Life After Paralysis

What life looks like after a paralytic event is highly variable. Hopefully, your kitty returns to a vivacious feline existence. However, if that’s not the case for your pet it can be helpful to take a look at their quality of life. In addition to assessing their quality of life, take time to consider how to combat care-taker burnout and identify resources that can help you before you reach that point.

About

Dr. Bethany graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 2010. After graduation, she moved west. Dr. Bethany spent a year at a small animal exclusive practice in Washington state, where she was first introduced to in-home euthanasia. She gravitated towards helping pet parents and their pets in their last moments when it seemed other doctors did not find an interest. Growing up, Bethany had many childhood pets and occasionally tended to injured wildlife. The ability to calm and comfort animals seemed to come naturally to her. Dr. Bethany believes a peaceful passing is the last gift we give our pets and that it’s a gift best given at home. In her spare time, Dr. Bethany enjoys reading and running, although her favorite time is spent together with her husband and their young children. Read More