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Cat with Cerebellar Hypoplasia – 10 important things you must Know

This post include on query cat with cerebellar hypoplasia and what are symptoms, prevention and treatment of cat with hypoplasia by

Contributors: Tammy Hunter, DVM; Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH


What is cerebellar hypoplasia?

Cerebellar hypoplasia is a developmental condition in which the cerebellum of the brain fails to develop properly. The cerebellum is the portion of the brain that controls fine motor skills, balance, and coordination. The condition is not painful or contagious.

What causes it?

Cerebellar hypoplasia most commonly occurs when a pregnant cat becomes infected with feline panleukopenia virus and passes the infection to her unborn kittens. The panleukopenia virus preferentially attacks rapidly dividing cells. During the perinatal period (i.e., in the last weeks of pregnancy and the first weeks after birth) the cerebellum is undergoing rapid growth and development, making it vulnerable to attack by the virus. The condition may only affect one kitten in a litter or may involve all littermates.

What are the symptoms?

Since the cerebellum is responsible for purposeful movement and coordination, the symptoms of this condition may not become apparent until the kitten starts to try and stand or walk on its own. The severity of the symptoms depends on how much of the cerebellum was affected and at what stage in its development the infection occurred.

The most typical symptoms are jerky or uncoordinated walking, swaying from side to side when trying to walk, a goose-stepping gait called hypermetria, mild head tremors, and/or intention tremors. Intention tremors are tremors that occur when the kitten intends to make some sort of movement. Intention tremors may be present to a minor degree when the kitten walks, but will usually become more pronounced when the kitten tries to do something more involved such as playing with a toy or bending over to drink or eat out of a bowl.

Are there any other causes of this condition?

It is possible that a kitten could develop cerebellar hypoplasia if its mother is severely malnourished during her pregnancy or if the kitten suffers a physical trauma to its brain during the period of time when the cerebellum is developing. Other inflammatory diseases of the brain such as toxoplasmosis infection may cause similar symptoms. However, the most common cause of this condition by far is infection with panleukopenia virus.

How is this condition diagnosed?

Cerebellar hypoplasia cannot be detected using routine laboratory tests. In some cases, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) may show that the kitten has a smaller than normal cerebellum.

What is the treatment?

Since the condition is caused by a lack of development of the brain, there is no treatment.

How can this condition be prevented?

This disease can be prevented by vaccination of female cats against panleukopenia prior to pregnancy.

What is the prognosis?

Kittens with cerebellar hypoplasia are not infectious to other kittens or cats, are not in any pain, and will learn to adapt to their disability over time. They can safely be spayed or neutered, but must be kept indoors as they are prone to losing their balance and could easily be injured or attacked if they go outdoors. If their symptoms are pronounced, they may require special modifications in their home environment, including dishes that are raised off the floor for easier access.

Although some kittens may be more prone to minor injuries associated with falls, all of them are able to have a normal life expectancy provided they are given some extra tender loving care.

feline cerebellar hypoplasia
 Bernard Jaubert / Getty Images

Feline cerebellar hypoplasia is a neurological disorder that occurs when a cat’s brain did not develop properly in the womb. This disorder is congenital, meaning it is present at birth. A cat with cerebellar hypoplasia has an underdeveloped cerebellum, a part of the brain located in the back of the brain beneath the cerebrum. The cerebellum is responsible for coordination, spatial awareness, and fine motor skills. 

Feline cerebellar hypoplasia is not typically a life-threatening condition, but it can have a negative impact on the cat’s quality of life depending on the severity.

Signs of Feline Cerebellar Hypoplasia

Cats with cerebellar hypoplasia often have trouble walking, running, keeping balanced, jumping, and locating objects. They often bob their heads and appear wobbly when walking. Some will experience splaying of their limbs or slide on their feet. They may have trouble focusing on objects and approaching them accurately, especially when it comes to litter boxes, waters bowls, and food dishes.

Signs of cerebellar hypoplasia are generally first detected when the kitten begins walking, typically around four to six weeks of age. Cases of feline cerebellar hypoplasia range from mild to severe.

Feline cerebellar hypoplasia is not a painful condition, nor is it contagious. Fortunately, cerebellar hypoplasia does not get worse over time. The condition will also not improve over time. However, most kittens learn to adapt as they age and can live happy healthy lives. In many cases, it may seem that the condition has improved because the cat has done such a great job adapting to it. In severe cases, the cat may need a lot of assistance in life. This still doesn’t mean the cat cannot experience a good quality of life.

Feline Cerebellar Hypoplasia Causes

Because feline cerebellar hypoplasia begins in utero, a cat can only be born with the condition; it cannot be acquired later in life. The cause of the birth defect may come down to the mother’s experiences while pregnant. A pregnant cat may come into contact with a virus or experience a trauma that affects her fetuses. One or more of her kittens may be born with cerebellar hypoplasia.

In some cases, feline cerebellar hypoplasia is simply genetic/hereditary. The exact cause of feline cerebellar hypoplasia cannot usually be determined unless there is a known trauma or virus exposure to the mother cat. 

Diagnosing Feline Cerebellar Hypoplasia

There is no simple test to diagnose cerebellar hypoplasia in cats. However, your veterinarian may recommend a series of tests to rule out more serious conditions. Your vet will likely start with routine lab work like blood chemistry, complete blood count, and urinalysis. These tests may reveal metabolic problems, organ dysfunction, or abnormal cells in the blood or urine.

Your primary vet may refer you to a veterinary specialist, like a neurologist, to pursue further testing. The best way to rule out other major neurological conditions is for a veterinary specialist to conduct a CT or MRI scan. A cerebrospinal fluid tap may also be recommended to look for bacterial or viral infections. The CT or MRI may show brain abnormalities including but not limited to cerebellar hypoplasia.

Advanced diagnostics are not always necessary. Perhaps your budget is tight or you don’t want your cat to undergo a lot of testing. Your vet may be able to make a presumptive diagnosis based on your cat’s symptoms, then offer options for helping you cat life a wonderful life.

Caring for a Cat With Cerebellar Hypoplasia

There is no cure for feline cerebellar hypoplasia. Sadly, euthanasia may be the most humane option for cats with very severe cerebellar hypoplasia. The good news is that most cats with mild to moderate cerebellar hypoplasia can lead relatively normal lives with a little extra help from their owners.

Cats with cerebellar hypoplasia should always be spayed or neutered in case their condition is genetic and can be passed down. 

For their own safety, cats with cerebellar hypoplasia should never be allowed to go outdoors. They should not be declawed as they need all their claws to help keep their balance. Their nails should be kept a little longer than you would keep them on the average cat. This will help them gain traction around the house.

Cats with cerebellar hypoplasia will do better with large litter boxes that are easy to get in and out of. Ramps placed in front of litter boxes and furniture can make it much easier for cats to access these areas. For safety, place baby gates at steps to prevent falls. Avoid giving easy access to very high places as these cats are more likely to fall. Help create traction where there are slick floors by laying down yoga mats or foam pads. Use non-slip mats for the food and water bowls and keep a non-slip standing surface in front of the bowls for your cat to stand on. Wide bowls for food and water may be easier for cats to access.

Be sure to carefully introduce new cats and other pets to your cat with cerebellar hypoplasia. These cats can certainly live with “normal” animals, but they may be more vulnerable if the pets are not getting along. Supervise all interactions until you are sure they are used to one another. In general, it’s best not to leave a cat with cerebellar hypoplasia alone with a larger dog. Dogs, especially those with higher prey drives, may perceive the cat as prey in distress and chase or attack out of instinct.

A cat with mild to moderate cerebellar hypoplasia may be more accident-prone than the average cat, but there’s a high likelihood the cat can learn to adapt and compensate for the differences and live a long happy life. A little help from you will go a long way.