What Causes Paralysis in Cats?

Arnold Plotnick, DVM, offers some possible answers.

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Q: My friend recently found her cat paralyzed. The cat was responsive and could turn her head, but the rest of her body did not move. The cat was "calling out" and purred when touched. No visible signs of injury were present. Because this happened at night, there was no place to contact until morning.

We tried to get the cat to the local veterinarian the next morning. On the way there, the cat's eyes became dilated. You could see hemorrhaging in the whites of the eyes and the cat's breathing became labored. The cat stopped breathing just before we got to the vet. I tried to perform CPR on the cat, but to no avail.

A preliminary exam from the vet suggested that the cat had an embolism in her back or possibly had leukemia. From what I've read about feline leukemia, paralysis is not one of the symptoms.

My friend’s cat was 3 years old and had all her required shots. What do you think caused her paralysis?

A: I agree with you that feline leukemia is unlikely to have been the cause of the cat’s paralysis. The most common cause of sudden rear limb paralysis is indeed an embolism. A heart disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy can lead to arterial thromboembolism. In these cases, a blood clot forms in the heart, and a piece of the clot breaks off and travels down the aorta. It then gets lodged at the end of the aorta, cutting off the blood supply to the rear legs. In these instances, the front legs tend to be fine.

I can’t tell if the paralysis affected just the rear legs or if all legs were affected. If all four legs were affected, then I’m reluctant to guess as to what the cause is because there aren’t many conditions that would cause sudden paralysis of all four limbs in an indoor cat. 

Certainly, a blood clot to the spinal cord is a possibility, although this is uncommon. Trauma to the spinal cord is also a possibility, although, again, not common in an indoor cat. A disk problem in the spine is also a possibility, but this is more common in dogs and rarely affects cats. Unfortunately, without an autopsy, I don’t think we’ll ever know what caused this poor cat’s untimely demise. 

Regards,
Arnold Plotnick, DVM

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Reader Comments

Christine    New York, NY

7/13/2015 10:50:42 AM

Our 2 yr old female kitty had the same problem. She fell over, unable to walk. She could not move from the neck down and was purring and calling. Her front leg was twitching as well as her eye. We brought her to the vet ER and they said blood clot. But we questioned it. She's a rescue from a dairy farm. She is an excellent mouser for our vegetable garden, however prey animals often carry parasites. Many parasitic, viral and bacterial infections cause paralysis. The ER vets agreed to try IV antibiotics. Thank Goodness, because our Lilly made a full and miraculous recovery!

Debbie    Garland, TX

6/1/2015 6:21:23 AM

The same thing happened to my 16 & 1/2 yr old maine coon cat Pepper. I was out of the house for about 4 hours & when I returned, I found him laying between my sofa & chair just meowing. I had to pull him out from in-between the place on to the carpet to try to see what was going on. He could not move anything from his neck down. He had also messed himself. I bundled him up & took him straight to the emergency animal hospital. The Vet there said he had probably had a stroke or either a blood cot to his back. He said it was common in cats. I had to let him go. That was 3 years ago & I still grieve for him. I rescued him from an animal shelter when he was just 8 weeks old. We had a wonderful life together.

Mary Anne    Charleston, SC

3/6/2015 6:35:51 PM

I have a 15 year old mostly outdoor cat that just suddenly lost the use of his front legs. He wanted in the house just before it happened and that is unusual for him. Then suddenly He had paralysis of his front legs. He did not seem to be in pain or have any difficulty breathing. He did look scared though. The next morning, he was fine, walking around and wanted food. He did not want to go back outside yesterday and that is unusual for him. Again last night, the same thing happened and he lost the use of his front legs, but this morning he was fine again. He even went outside for awhile and laid in the sun. I am making him stay inside tonight just as a precaution. Does anybody have any idea what could be wrong?

Shelby    Maine, ME

2/20/2015 11:41:33 PM

This happened to my three year old cat a 4 a.m., it was terrifying, he was screaming in so much pain, he was so scared, so was I. The vet said only thing to do is let him go he was gone 2 hours later.

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