Facial Paralysis In Dogs & Cats
What is facial paralysis in dogs and cats?
Facial paralysis in dogs and cats happens when the seventh cranial or facial nerve doesn’t function properly. This nerve comes from the back of the brain and controls the muscles in the face, including the eyelids, nostrils, lips and ears.
When this nerve doesn’t function as it should, it leads to a drooping face, changes in facial expression, and trouble changing facial expressions that can affect one or both sides of the face.
Your pet’s face can be paralysed on one side or both sides, and it can be temporary or permanent. It’s also possible that it may affect one side of the face first, then affect the other side at a later date.
It’s most common in middle and old-aged dogs of the following breeds, such as Beagles, Cocker Spaniels, Corgis, English Setters and Boxers. It can also affect domestic long-haired cats, who are at an increased risk compared to other cat breeds.
What are the causes of facial paralysis in dogs and cats?
Nerve damage to the seventh cranial nerve, or impairment of the area where the nerves come together (affecting the electrical impulses of the nerves), is the chief cause of facial paralysis. This can occur for a number of reasons in both dogs and cats:
- Injuries, which can be caused by trauma or rough handling
- Middle and inner-ear infections
- Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
- Diabetes mellitus
- Cushing’s disease
- Toxins, such as botulism
- Inflammation of the nerve roots or central nervous system
- Abnormal tissue growth
- Benign growths that appear in the middle ear or the back of the throat.
- Neuromuscular disorders
However, facial paralysis can often have no discernible cause, and this is known as idiopathic facial nerve paralysis.
What are the symptoms of facial paralysis?
One or both sides of the face can be affected, and symptoms are similar for dogs and cats, with a drooping face being the most obvious.
You may also notice that the ears, eyelids and nostrils are drooping, weak or paralysed. The nostril may also have collapsed. Lips may be droopy and, due to reduced muscle tone, the nose may look like it’s turning away from the affected side of the face.
Other common symptoms include:
- Inability to blink or close the eye
- Struggling to eat and drink
- Difficulty changing facial expressions
- Dry eyes or discharge
- Facial asymmetry or spasms
- Head tilt towards the affected side
- Uncoordinated movement
If both sides of the face are affected at the same time, changes can be difficult to spot, but dribbling is common, and your pet may look dull or uninterested. If the face is totally paralysed, your pet won’t be able to move its ears, nostrils, lips or eyelids. If the face is only partially paralysed, movement will be significantly reduced.
Where facial paralysis in dogs and cats is caused by an inner ear infection, you may notice symptoms of Horner’s syndrome – chiefly smaller pupils and the third eyelid covering the affected eye.
Your pet may also show strange or unusual eye movement. You may also notice that your pet’s head is tilted to one side, or that it has lost its balance, which is a sign of vestibular disease, a veterinary neurological condition.
How is it diagnosed?
Idiopathic facial paralysis in dogs and cats will mean that test results will be normal, so it’s other causes are ruled out.
Your vet will ask you about the history of your pet’s health, as well as when symptoms started, and whether anything may have occurred prior to symptoms starting, such as an injury or any trauma.
They will also conduct a series of tests to establish the cause of your pet’s facial paralysis. Examples include:
- Full physical examination
- Ear, eye and facial examination
- Advanced imaging, such as an x-ray, CT scan and MRI scan
- Taking bacterial cultures
- Taking a sample of the fluid from around the brain
- A complete blood count
- Conducting a chemical blood profile
- Carrying out a urinalysis
- Taking a thyroid function test
If all the tests come back normal and your pet isn’t suffering from a tumour, thyroid issues or infection, and if it hasn’t experienced trauma, they will be diagnosed with idiopathic facial paralysis.
How is facial paralysis in dogs and cats treated?
Treatment depends on the cause of the facial paralysis. Where there is no discernible cause, there is no treatment other than supportive care and the possible need to apply lubricating eye drops.
Where there is a specific cause, treatments are varied, but will mainly take place via outpatient appointments. Treatments can include:
- Therapy, such as as replacement therapy, electroacupuncture, massage and heat if it’s caused by injury and to help with muscle weakness
- Artificial tears and eye drops if it’s caused by eye problems
- Soft tissue surgery
Treatment will tend to be identified on a case-by-case basis.
What’s the prognosis?
While this can be an uncomfortable condition, most dogs and cats cope well with it, and even if the paralysis is permanent, your pet’s quality of life shouldn’t be significantly affected. Facial paralysis itself isn’t a life-threatening condition.
- Idiopathic facial paralysis – The prognosis is good as symptoms, such as dribbling, drooping and issues with eating or drinking will improve after just a few weeks.
- Ear infections – the prognosis is less certain, because the infection can cause damage that’s irreversible and result in permanent paralysis. However, if it’s caught early, your pet will receive treatment quicker, making the prognosis more favourable.
- Tumours – the prognosis depends on how early it is detected. Depending on the type and providing it’s found and treated early, your pet should make a good recovery.
- Eyes – you’ll need to administer artificial tears while, which may be needed for the rest of your pet’s life if the damage is permanent.
Whatever the cause of your pet’s facial paralysis, it’s important to remember that the facial nerve can regenerate – albeit slowly. Follow-up appointments will be necessary to assess the recovery process, but provided any issues are detected early and the damage isn’t permanent, your pet should make a full recovery.
How long is recovery?
Where the condition is temporary, it can last several weeks, but your pet can be affected for an indeterminate period of time.
However, once they start to recover, you’ll notice that dribbling and issues with eating and drinking will begin to improve.
You’ll need to continue to administer any drops or medication while your pet recovers, and it’s important to arrange and attend follow-up appointments so your vet can make sure your pet’s recovery is on track and that there are no signs of complications.