Person petting cat

Key takeaway

Cat paralysis is a symptom of underlying medical conditions. Common causes of feline paralysis include nerve damage, tumors, injuries, toxins, and more. If you notice your cat has become paralyzed, you should take them to the vet as soon as possible. This ensures they can get properly diagnosed and receive treatment.

Cat paralysis is a serious medical condition that is often a symptom of a larger problem. Unfortunately, cats of all breeds, ages, and sexes can become paralyzed when underlying conditions aren’t treated. If your cat is unable to move any part of their body, they may be suffering from cat paralysis. You should seek an emergency veterinarian as soon as possible since they can tell you why this is happening to your cat and provide treatment. 

If you want to learn more about feline paralysis, this article will discuss what it is, its causes, and available treatments.  

What Is Cat Paralysis?

Cat paralysis, also known as paraplegia, is a complete loss of voluntary motor function.1 Your cat’s nervous system consists of their brain, spinal cord, and nerves, which all work together to help your cat move. When your cat’s nervous system isn’t working properly, they can lose motor function in different parts of their body. 

Paralysis can be sudden, or you may notice your cat moving one part of their body slower than the other. Overall, your cat will move less, become fatigued, and have a decreased range of motion. They may also not be able to walk, jump, or meow in some cases. Additionally, laryngeal paralysis in cats is another type of paralysis that affects the larynx, which is the organ responsible for vocal sounds, breathing, and preventing food from getting stuck in your lungs. So, paralysis isn’t limited to a cat's limbs. 

Cat paralysis is a sign that your cat has an underlying medical condition. If you notice symptoms of paralysis, take your cat to the vet immediately, as paralysis can become permanent or lead to death without proper treatment. 

Signs of Cat Paralysis

The signs of cat paralysis can be subtle, or they may be obvious, depending on the root of the problem. There can also be acute symptoms that appear suddenly, or your cat can have symptoms that get worse over time. 

Regardless, these are some of the most common signs of cat paralysis: 

Signs of cat paralysis

  • Inability to move parts of the body, which can include the neck, head, legs, tongue, tail, and even back
  • Stumbling
  • Lethargy
  • Twitching
  • Delayed reaction to stimuli

Causes of Cat Paralysis

There are many different causes of feline paralysis, but it's mainly due to the nervous system not functioning correctly. As a result, the brain can’t send signals to your cat’s body parts to move. For example, paralysis in the leg is typically due to peripheral spinal nerve damage.2 Additionally, tumors near the nerves can also make a single limb paralyzed.2

Of course, the first step to treating your cat is to determine the cause of their feline paralysis. While you can learn about the different causes of cat paralysis, you should always work with a vet who can diagnose your pet and ensure they get proper treatment. That said, here are some of the most common causes of paralysis in cats. 

Causes of cat paralysis

Nerve damage 

As mentioned, nerve damage can cause cat paralysis. Anything can damage the nerves. For example, cat ear infections can weaken facial nerves, leading to facial paralysis. Additionally, cat skin irritation caused by fungal diseases and other issues can affect the central nervous system and lead to behavioral changes.

Tumors 

Tumors near or at the nerve root can cause a disconnect between the brain’s signals and nerves, leading to paralysis. Tumors that grow and press on the nerve can cause weakness and immobility in a single limb. 

Injuries

Injuries to the nerve can also cause paralysis because it blocks the brain from signaling the nerve. If a nerve is damaged due to injury, your pet may be unable to move certain parts of their body. For example, if your cat has an injured nerve on their back, they may not be able to move their hind legs. On the other hand, if their leg is injured, only that leg may be affected. 

Parasites 

Parasites, such as ticks, can also cause paralysis. Tick paralysis symptoms typically occur quickly and are caused by the saliva produced by certain species of ticks.4 Additionally, other parasites, such as worms in cats, can lead to paralysis. 

Parasites that cause paralysis

Roundworms can be found in the spinal veins of cats, which can cause paralysis as they interrupt the cat’s brain’s ability to communicate with the nerves.5

Toxins

Toxins can also cause paralysis. For example, botulism typically comes from a toxin in food, such as decaying carcasses or vegetable materials.6 In most cases, cats get botulism from consuming infected raw meat. Signs of botulism in cats include lack of appetite, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, and more. If your pet has recently consumed raw meat and you have a lethargic cat, take them to the vet to ensure they haven’t been poisoned.  

Diagnosing Paralysis in Cats

Diagnosing paralysis in cats requires a professional veterinarian. Your vet will check their posture, reflexes, pain sensation, and more to identify the paralysis.2 If your cat has a nerve injury, they will try to identify the location of the injury. The closer the injury is to the muscle, the better the outlook.2

Your vat will also perform a neurological examination to observe the presence of your cat's paralysis. Typically, if your cat has a gait abnormality, they will try to determine whether or not it has anything to do with a neurological condition.1

Your vet may also require other tests to diagnose your cat’s paralysis, including:

  • Blood work, urinalysis, and X-rays: These standard vet tests will check your cat’s overall health to identify toxins or trauma while screening for cancer. 
  • CSF tap: Your vet may take a sample of your cat’s spinal fluid to look for infection. 
  • CT/MRI scans: CT and MRI scans can identify spinal and brain disorders that may be causing your cat’s paralysis. 
  • Muscle/nerve biopsies: Your vet may choose to biopsy specific tissues and view them under a microscope to diagnose paralysis. 

Treatment for Cats with Paralysis

Treatment for paralysis depends on the root of a cat’s condition. For example, your vet will need to know if there’s a tumor pushing on the nerve or if your cat has a spinal cord injury before they can begin treating them. Overall, your vet will not be trying to treat the paralysis specifically; instead, they’ll treat the underlying condition causing the paralysis. 

If the cause of your cat’s paralysis is a tumor, your vet will aim to remove the tumor. If your cat has ingested toxins, your vet will attempt to get the toxins out of their body as quickly as possible. Treatment is necessary because medical illnesses typically come with more symptoms that can impact your cat’s quality of life. 

In cases of severe nerve damage, your cat’s limb may have to be amputated. Again, this depends on the cause of the paralysis and the location of damaged nerves. Oftentimes, your cat will be hospitalized for several days, and your vet will schedule follow-up appointments to ensure that your cat’s pain and inflammation are being taken care of properly at home. Additionally, your cat may need to go through physical therapy to help them start using their affected limb or limbs again. 

Sleeping cat

Recovery for Paralysis in Cats

Many cats recover from paralysis with proper treatment as nerves regenerate slowly.2 However, a full recovery will depend on the health of the nerve; some nerve injuries will get better in a few months, while others may need surgical reattachment.2 At home, you can apply heat and gently massage your cat’s affected limb while the nerve is regenerating.2 These actions can help your cat relax while reducing pain and discomfort. 

Your vet may also advise that your cat undergoes physical therapy. Physical therapy can also be done at home or via remote vet appointments to help limit muscle atrophy and improve your cat’s range of motion. 

Cat Paralysis: Frequently Asked Questions

Can a cat recover from paralysis?

A cat’s recovery will depend on the underlying cause of the paralysis. Many cats will be able to regain function, but there may be long-term effects. Treatment success is more likely the sooner you catch the paralysis, so don’t wait to take your cat to the vet if you notice they’re unable to move some parts of their body. 

How do I treat my cat’s paralysis? 

The first step to treating your paralyzed cat is to get them diagnosed by a vet. Your vet can tell you the reason your cat is paralyzed and the different treatment options available. Treatment for your cat’s paralysis will depend on the diagnosis.  

What causes paralysis in cats?

There are a variety of things that can cause paralysis in cats, including injury and trauma, parasites, toxins, and more. Speak with a vet to determine why your cat is paralyzed. 

Final Notes

Cat paralysis is an immediate medical emergency. If you notice your cat is unable to move any part of their body, take them to a vet as soon as possible. Cat paralysis can be caused by a variety of different underlying conditions, including toxins, parasites, nerve damage, and tumors. Diagnosing paralysis in cats means visiting your vet, who can determine and treat the underlying cause of the paralysis. After your vet has treated your cat's underlying condition, your cat may have to undergo physical therapy. You should also expect follow-up vet visits to ensure your cat is healing correctly and their nerves are starting to repair. Having a vet you can trust to take care of your cat is crucial. 

Dutch offers non-emergency telemedicine for pets that you can take advantage of in the comfort of your own home. Whether you need advice on caring for your cat or you need a treatment plan to tackle ticks and worms, a licensed vet is always ready to help. Try Dutch today to learn how we can support you and your pet.

References

  1. Negrin, Arianna, et al. “The Paralyzed Cat: Neuroanatomic Diagnosis and Specific Spinal Cord Diseases.” SAGE Journals, Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 3 Feb. 2017, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1016/j.jfms.2009.03.004.

  2. Schubert, Thomas. “Leg Paralysis in Cats - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, Oct. 2020, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/brain,-spinal-cord,-and-nerve-disorders-of-cats/leg-paralysis-in-cats.

  3. Schubert, Thomas. “Nervous System Disorders and Effects of Injuries in Cats - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, Oct. 2020, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/brain,-spinal-cord,-and-nerve-disorders-of-cats/nervous-system-disorders-and-effects-of-injuries-in-cats.

  4. Atwell, Rick. “Overview of Tick Paralysis - Nervous System.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, Jun. 2016, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/nervous-system/tick-paralysis/overview-of-tick-paralysis.

  5. Hendrix, Charles M., and Rick Atwell. “Central Nervous System Disorders Caused by Parasites in Cats - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, Oct. 2020, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/brain,-spinal-cord,-and-nerve-disorders-of-cats/central-nervous-system-disorders-caused-by-parasites-in-cats.

  6. Stämpfli, Henry R., and Olimpo J. Oliver-Espinosa. “Botulism in Animals - Generalized Conditions.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, Jul. 2021, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/generalized-conditions/clostridial-diseases/botulism-in-animals.