Coonhound Paralysis

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CRPP

My dog was just diagnosed with coonhound paralysis. What is this?

coonhound-paralysisCoonhound paralysis describes a sudden inflammation of multiple nerve roots and peripheral nerves in dogs, and occasionally cats. It can be caused by an immune reaction to raccoon saliva. However, it can also occur in dogs who have not encountered a raccoon. In this case it is called acute idiopathic polyradiculoneuritis and its cause is unknown.

In humans, a similar condition is Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). In GBS, the body’s immune system attacks part of the nervous system causing tingling and weakness in the legs that progresses to the upper body and arms. In severe cases, the person becomes totally paralyzed

Does my dog’s breed have anything to do with this?

Any dog breed that tends to have contact with raccoons are potentially susceptible, but there are no breeds that are more likely than others to develop these symptoms spontaneously.

What is the typical sequence of signs and symptoms?

Signs will typically appear 7-14 days after contact with raccoon saliva through a bite or scratch (true coonhound paralysis), after receiving a vaccination, or following a gastrointestinal or respiratory infection (idiopathic polyradiculoneuritis). These dogs start out with a stiff-legged gait that rapidly progresses to paralysis of all four legs. The affected nerves are those that connect the spinal cord and the muscles. The symptoms typically progress over 4-5 days, although it can take up to 10 days for maximum symptoms to appear.

These dogs have decreased reflexes, decreased muscle tone, and can lose muscle mass. The rear legs are sometimes more severely affected than the front legs, and in dogs with a severe disease, their chest muscles may be affected, causing labored breathing. The facial muscles may be affected preventing the dog from blinking normally, leading to “dry eye” and the need to provide artificial tear treatment. Also, the dog’s bark may become altered or lost. Interestingly, most dogs with polyradiculoneuritis/coonhound paralysis can still wag their tails despite their paralysis.

Is this condition painful?

While coonhound paralysis is not generally considered to be a painful condition, pain sensation is intact. The dog can still experience pain; the problem is that they may not be able to express pain they are feeling because of the paralysis. Alternately, the dog may become overly sensitive to pain or touch. It is important to be especially watchful for any evidence of pain or discomfort and to discuss all concerns about pain with your veterinarian.

How is coonhound paralysis treated?

Severely affected dogs may need to be treated in a hospital setting and monitored specifically for difficulty breathing. If breathing problems develop, oxygen treatment may be needed for a period of time.

"Most dogs are treated at home once their diagnosis is confirmed and they are stable."

Most dogs are treated at home once their diagnosis is confirmed, and their condition is stable. Most dogs are able to eat and drink, but they may need to be hand-fed, at least at first. They will need intensive physical therapy in order to lessen or slow the inevitable loss of muscle mass. Bedding needs to be well-padded, and these dogs need to be turned and moved frequently to prevent pressure sores. It is important to encourage as much voluntary movement as possible to facilitate a more rapid recovery.

No medications are proven effective for reversing this disorder. Appropriate and effective pain medications are indicated when needed.

Are there any special considerations for these dogs?  What about recovery?

Coonhound paralysis may recur in some dogs. It is important to remain in close contact with your veterinarian throughout management and recovery. A veterinary re-evaluation should be performed at least every 2-3 weeks. Respiratory paralysis, pressure sores, and inflammation of the bladder (if the dog does not urinate as frequently as usual) are all potential complications.

"The key to recovery is good nursing care."

Most dogs recover fully from coonhound paralysis/polyradiculoneuritis. Some dogs will experience mild nervous system deficits for a period of several weeks to several months. The key to recovery is good nursing care. This means preventing pressure sores, limiting the loss of muscle mass, appropriate pain management (when needed), and adequate nutrition to support recovery.

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