Weakness and Paralysis in Cats

Injuries and diseases of the spinal cord produce a variety of neurological signs. Following injury, there may be neck or back pain; weakness or paralysis of one or more legs; a stumbling, uncoordinated gait; loss of pain perception in the limbs; and urinary or fecal incontinence.

Other conditions producing limb weakness or paralysis that may be mistaken for a spinal cord problem are arterial thromboembolism, nerve injury, and broken bones. Arterial thromboembolism can be distinguished by absent or reduced pulses in the groin.

A pelvic fracture is frequently mistaken for a broken back. In both cases, the cat is unable to use her back legs and will show pain when handled in the area of the injury. An X-ray may be needed to distinguish the two conditions. It is important to ascertain that the urinary bladder hasn't ruptured. It might appear that the outlook is poor, even though cats with a broken pelvis usually recover completely.

Acute abdominal pain (caused by peritonitis, lower urinary tract disorder, or a kidney or liver infection) produces a peculiar hunched appearance that can be mistaken for a spinal cord problem. The acute abdomen will show signs of pain when pressure is applied to the abdominal wall.

Spinal Cord Injuries

Traumatic spinal cord injuries are usually caused by car accidents, falls, and abuse. A cat can get caught in the blades of an automobile fan when the car is started, because outdoor cats frequently will huddle up next to a warm car radiator in cold weather.

A common injury occurs when a car runs over a cat's tail, pulling apart the sacral-lumbar or coccygeal vertebrae and stretching the nerves that go to the bladder, rectum, and tail. The signs are paralysis of the tail (which hangs loosely like a rope) and urinary or fecal incontinence. The anal sphincter is completely relaxed. The bladder is paralyzed and greatly overdistended. If the condition is not recognized and treated shortly after the accident, bladder paralysis remains even though nerve function is restored. As a result, any cat with a limp tail must be seen by a veterinarian and X-rayed for sacral injury. Many of these cats will need to be hospitalized so the bladder can be manually emptied and treatment can be started to attempt to heal the nerves controlling urination and defecation.

Protect the cat's spine. Use a blanket or towel to lift her onto a flat surface, such a board, before transporting.

Treatment: All spinal cord injuries require immediate veterinary attention. A cat with spinal cord trauma may also have other life-threatening injuries that take precedence. All cats who are unconscious or unable to stand should be considered to have spinal cord injury and must be handled with great care to protect the spine.

At the scene of the accident, move the cat as gently as possible onto a rigid, flat surface, such as a plywood board or a folded-down cardboard box, and transport to the nearest veterinary clinic. Sliding the cat onto a blanket or large towel and lifting the corners is a satisfactory way of transporting the cat if no board is available.

Spinal cord injuries are treated at the veterinary hospital with corticosteroids and diuretics to prevent the cord from further swelling. A cat with a mild contusion or bruising of the spinal cord will begin to recover in a few days. However, if the cord has been severed, it cannot regenerate and paralysis will be permanent.