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Neurological Issues in Cats
As a cat owner, it is frightening to see your beloved feline suffer from a seizure or other neurological episode. Yet, neurological disorders can occur in cats, just as they can in humans. In fact, similar to humans, a cat’s central nervous system works with a complex network of nerves to send messages to the body. The brain sends signals through the spinal cord, that then travel to the nerves, telling organs and muscles how to function. When something in the body interferes with these signals, a variety of problems can occur. Some neurological diseases can be treated or managed with medicines, and others with surgery.
What Is a Neurological Disorder?
Neurological disorders result from a disruption to your cat’s nervous system. If the issue is in the brain, seizures may be present. However, an infection in the spinal cord may result in an unsteady gait, problems with limb functioning, or complete paralysis. A disruption of nerves can affect almost any part of your cat’s body including its face, mouth, legs, or paws.1 And since the nervous system affects most of your cat’s major bodily functions, issues with balance, speech (meowing), eating, urinating, and defecating can also be present if there is a neurological issue present.
Symptoms of Neurological Disorders in Cats
A large range of symptoms can accompany a neurological disease, depending on the lesion’s location and cause. However, a cat can’t tell you if she’s dizzy, disoriented, or depressed, so looking for physical representations of distress is crucial in diagnosis. First, there are obvious symptoms like seizures, sudden blindness, an inability to walk or walking with a drunken gait (ataxia), or even partial or full paralysis of the face or limb(s). Things like muscle twitching or tremors may be harder to spot and might require spending some quiet time studying your feline friend. Take note if your cat is acting disoriented or confused, has abnormally rapid eye movements (nystagmus), has a head tilt, or starts walking in circles,1 as this could be a sign of something serious. And if you notice any of these signs, call your veterinarian to schedule an immediate examination.
Diagnosing Neurological Disorders in Cats
A complete neurological evaluation must be conducted at a vet’s office. First, your veterinarian will ask about your cat’s medical history. Then, he/she will perform a comprehensive physical examination.2 This includes checking your cat’s reflexes, inspecting its eyes, and assessing its pain. In many cases, the vet will also want to watch your cat move around.
Your vet may recommend additional diagnostics, like lab work, based on the outcome of the physical examination. A complete blood count, blood chemistry, and urinalysis may be ordered, and a thyroid test can rule out feline hyperthyroidism, which can sometimes present itself with mild neurological signs. Your vet may want to check for high blood pressure, too.
Radiographs (x-rays) of the limbs and spine can reveal obvious issues, like spinal trauma or large tumors in the body. Still, if your vet is unable to determine the exact cause of the symptoms, you may be referred to a veterinary neurologist who will review the findings and possibly recommend more complex imaging such as an MRI or a CT scan to check for tumors, inflammation, or other abnormalities.2 A cerebral spinal fluid tap may also be ordered, which allows for microscopic analysis of the fluid around the spine, potentially revealing the presence of infection, blood, and other abnormal cells.
Causes of Neurological Disorders
Sometimes, a vet’s examination, combined with a few diagnostic tests, will unveil the cause of your cat’s neurological dysfunction. In addition to tumors and infection, certain toxins can also affect the nervous system. Infectious diseases like FIV, FeLV, or FIP can cause neurologic symptoms, too, as can some metabolic diseases.
Treating neurological disorders in cats starts with diagnosing the disorder, and care varies greatly based on the diagnosis.
- Treating seizure disorders: Seizures—sudden episodes of abnormal electrical activity in the brain—usually involve some loss of body control, such as twitching, convulsing, and involuntary urination/defecation. Cats may have seizures for a variety of reasons but when advanced diagnostics reveal no exact cause, the cat is usually diagnosed with epilepsy, typically managed with medication. If your cat has epilepsy, it’s important to communicate with your vet regularly and return for follow-up visits after starting a treatment protocol. Epilepsy is usually manageable with the daily administration of various medicines.
- Treating meningitis and encephalitis: Meningitis, inflammation of the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord, and encephalitis, inflammation of the brain, are usually caused by infection (bacterial, viral, fungal, or parasitic). These two conditions may occur at the same time (meningoencephalitis), and in some cases can signal a problem with a cat’s immune system. Treatment includes the use of corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and alter the immune system. Antibiotics, antifungals, or antiparasitic drugs are also used when indicated. Supportive care can include fluid administration, pain management, and nutritional supplements.
- Treating vestibular disease: Vestibular disease occurs when there is pressure on the nerves that control the vestibular system in the ear canals, often causing vertigo in cats. Cats may seem drunk or dizzy, tilt their head, or show rapid abnormal eye movements. A major ear infection or tumor can lead to vestibular dysfunction, or meningitis, encephalitis, or meningoencephalitis could be the culprit. Treatment depends on the actual cause of the dysfunction. If an ear infection is present, your cat may need ear drops and oral medications. Supportive care is given when needed.
- Treating cognitive dysfunction: Cognitive dysfunction, or dementia, is most commonly seen in senior cats. Cats with dementia seem to “forget” how to use the litter box, where the food bowl is, and how to navigate through the house. There is no cure for cognitive dysfunction, but some medications and nutritional supplements can slow its progression.
- Treating Intervertebral Disc Disease: Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD), or disc herniation, involves the inflammation or displacement of spinal discs, which ultimately put pressure on the spinal cord, leading to pain and possible paralysis. Though more common in dogs, IVDD can sometimes occur in cats.3 In mild cases (when the pet can still walk), vets may try an approach that includes rest, anti-inflammatory drugs, and muscle relaxants. Surgery is often the only treatment for severe cases.
- Treating hyperesthesia syndrome: Rarely diagnosed, this condition may affect a relatively large number of cats and is sometimes called rippling skin disorder. Feline hyperesthesia is often mistaken for a reaction to being pet along the back, when the skin may appear to ripple or twitch. The cat will suddenly scratch or overgroom the area and have a sudden burst of energy, causing it to act abnormally. Hyperesthesia syndrome is not considered serious and may stem from stress and anxiety. Treatment usually includes changes that reduce anxiety, such as scheduling regular feeding and play times.4
Neurological Disorders Caused by Brain Tumors
Brain tumors can spark a myriad of issues like seizures, incoordination, blindness, and behavioral changes. Clinical signs depend heavily on the size and location of the tumor. Benign tumors called meningiomas can often be removed with surgery and cats with operable meningiomas usually live normal lives after tumor removal. Without surgical removal, however, this type of tumor may expand, leading to more neurological dysfunction.
Malignant brain tumors also occur in cats. The prognosis for this type of tumor is not good. Palliative care can help.
How to Prevent Neurological Disorders
Many neurological disorders aren’t preventable, but maintaining a healthy lifestyle keeps any cat in tip-top shape. Feed your cat a high-quality food throughout adulthood. Allow it ample space to romp, play, and exercise. And always give your cat love and attention.
A wide variety of nervous system conditions can put your cat’s life at risk. Here’s what to look for.
Although it’s only the size of a golf ball, your cat’s brain is just about as complex and, when it comes to matters of vital concern, just about as capable as your brain. Of course, a cat uses its brain and the other components of its neurologic system to address needs and desires that are often different from yours. After all, you like to read books and watch movies; your cat likes to torment mice and play with balls of yarn.
Sad to say, a cat’s neurologic system also resembles yours in the wide variety of serious disorders with which it can be afflicted, sometimes with fatal consequences. According to Curtis Dewey, DVM, an associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, he and his colleagues typically treat four or five neurologically compromised cats each week at the university’s animal hospital.
The feline nervous system, like yours, is made up of two components: the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord; and the peripheral nervous system, which comprises the cranial, spinal, and other nerves, as well as muscles. In a healthy animal, the entire arrangement works harmoniously to enable and control vital processes within a cat’s body and to allow the animal to function effectively in its environment.
These processes are facilitated by the instantaneous delivery of electrical signals that are transmitted, via the peripheral nervous system, from tissues throughout a cat’s entire body to its spinal cord and brain. The brain responds by interpreting these signals and transmitting appropriate instructions back through the brain stem and spinal cord to the appropriate destination via the peripheral nerves.
Many functions of the nervous system are under conscious and voluntary control, such as the movement of an animal’s legs or the opening and closing of its mouth. Other functions are involuntary and regulated by the autonomic nervous system, such as those that control the activities of muscles in the digestive tract, lungs and heart, as well as the secretion of hormones.
The hub of all of this activity is the brain, which coordinates these activities. The brain consists of the cerebrum and cerebellum, which govern the array of nervous system activities; and the brain stem, which connects the brain to the spinal cord.
Among those disorders that do occur, some are significantly more common than others, notes Dr. Dewey. Perhaps the most frequently diagnosed of these is a neoplastic disease called meningioma, which is a type of tumor that develops in the thin protective tissue — the meninges — that covers a cat’s brain. Although these growths, which most often affect older cats, are usually benign and well-defined, their continued expansion will eventually result in damage caused by pressure on the brain. “Probably 75 percent of the brain tumors that we see are meningiomas,” says Dr. Dewey.
Fortunately, he notes, such tumors are notably amenable to surgical removal. “Cats that have a meningioma removed usually do very well,” Dr. Dewey says. “The surgery tends to be so successful that we don’t have to follow up with additional therapy, and a lot of the patients will go on to live for several years.” The same cannot be said for another type of brain tumor called a glioma, which develops in a deeper and sometimes surgically inaccessible area of a cat’s brain.
Additional feline neurologic disorders fall generally into the following categories:
Epilepsy — This condition stems from defects in the electrical transmission of nerve signals within a cat’s cerebral cortex, the area of the brain responsible for thought, memory, sensation and voluntary muscle movement. Although this condition can be secondary to head injuries, metabolic irregularities or tumors, a relatively common form is termed idiopathic epilepsy — so named because there is no discernible cause for the violent seizures that an affected cat experiences. Cats with idiopathic epilepsy are typically normal in every other respect, says Dr. Dewey. Fortunately, epilepsy is usually manageable with the daily administration of various medicines.
Congenital disorders — Among the most common of these is a condition affecting the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for muscle coordination. Some kittens that are born infected with the feline distemper virus will immediately show a severe lack of coordination. There is no cure for it, but cats with this neurologic problem can live a long life. Another congenital disorder, says Dr. Dewey, is hydrocephalus, a condition in which an abnormal accumulation of fluid can cause enlargement of the skull and compression of the brain. In some cases, he says, the condition can be successfully relieved by surgery that enables the drainage of excess fluid from a cat’s brain to its belly, from which it can then be excreted.
Infectious disease — Cats that are infected with the feline infectious peritonitis virus (FIP) sometimes experience neurologic damage, says Dr. Dewey. “And there’s not too much that we can do to treat it,” he notes. Also, he notes, “We fairly frequently see cats with bacterial infections of the middle- and inner-ear cavities that break through the skull, which can result in a brain infection. Most of these cats will do all right if we catch the infection early.”
Two other factors — trauma and advancing age — can play a substantial role in the sudden or gradual decline of feline neurologic well-being, says Dr. Dewey. “We often see cats that have been hit by cars,” he says. “Most of those that experience head trauma will die at the scene of the accident. But we sometimes see cats that almost escaped being hit but have had their tails run over. This can yank on the nerve roots, and in addition to having a dead tail, a cat that survives is likely to have urinary and fecal incontinence for the rest of its life.”
As for age-related neurologic problems, he says: “We don’t see a lot of them, but it’s well documented that old cats can develop a progressive degenerative disorder that kills brain cells. It’s similar to the problem experienced by elderly humans with Alzheimer’s disease.”
Is your cat displaying abnormal symptoms, but you aren’t quite sure what is causing them? A neurological disorder in cats can lead to an array of symptoms that can progress swiftly and affect some of your cat’s most vital bodily processes. Whether it is affecting a human being or a cat, a neurological disorder can be frightening and perplexing. The brain is extremely complex and controls the cat’s ability to breathe, move, respond, and more.
If you think that your cat may be suffering from a neurological disorder, but aren’t sure what symptoms to look for or the different types of neurological disorders in cats, you’re not alone. As a pet owner, it’s helpful to arm yourself with the foundational knowledge needed to recognize that there is an issue so that you can get your cat the help he needs as quickly as possible. Below is an introductory guide to neurological disorders in cats. This article will break down what symptoms to keep an eye out for, some of the types of nervous system disorders, and the basics on diagnosing neurological disorders in cats.
What Is a Neurological Disorder?
Have you heard of neurological disorder in cats, but aren’t quite sure what that means? Neurological disorders affect a cat’s nervous system, which is made up of several different components. The peripheral nervous system is the spinal, cranial, and other nerves and muscles in the body. The central nervous system, on the other hand, is made up of the spinal cord and the brain. The autonomic nervous system is the neurons in your cat’s body that direct the organs to work, such as for the heart to pump blood out to the rest of the body. When you look at these three distinct and vital components of a cat’s body, it’s easy to see why neurological disorders can be extremely serious.
The feline nervous system controls a cat’s ability to do many basic functions, such as being able to walk and open his mouth to eat. Just as with human beings, neurological disorders can affect various aspects of the nervous system, which determines the symptoms that neurological disorder will present. For example, a neurological disorder that targets the cat’s central nervous system may present differently than one that affects his peripheral nervous system. When it comes to neurological disorders in cats, back legs could be experiencing paralysis or the cat could have lost his vision, it depends on what part of the nervous system is being affected. Because of this, it is vital to be vigilant about tracking your cat’s symptoms if you suspect he may be suffering from a neurological disorder. By doing so, you will enable your veterinarian to be able to have accurate information and a timeline of the onset of symptoms to use to base their diagnosis on. In order to make sure your cat gets veterinary attention quickly, it is useful to know the common symptoms of a neurological disorder in cats.
Symptoms of a Feline Neurological Disorder
Knowing what symptoms to keep an eye out for will allow you to get your cat medical attention and the treatment he needs. As mentioned above, your cat may only be experiencing one or a few of these symptoms since the signs vary depending on the type of neurological disorder and what parts of the nervous system it affects. Below is a compilation of symptoms of various brain disorders in cats to help you know what to look for.
- Loss of balance
- Lack of coordination
- Hyperactive reflexes
- Walking in circles
- Loss of sense of smell
- Paralysis of the face, limbs, or body
- Muscle twitching
- Abnormally rapid eye movements (nystagmus)
If you see your cat displaying any of the symptoms above, it is important to call your veterinarian and make an appointment for a full physical examination as soon as possible. These symptoms could be signs that your cat is suffering from a neurological disorder, which can be terrifying and uncomfortable. Once you take your cat to the veterinarian, they will be able to do any necessary tests once they have examined your cat and taken a medical history in order to form a diagnosis. To diagnose your cat, the veterinarian will need to determine what type of feline neurological disorder he is suffering from.
Types of Feline Neurological Disorders
There are many different types of neurological disorders in cats that could be the potential culprit of the symptoms you have observed. Neurological disorders in cats can be congenital, meaning that they are born with a neurological problem, or can be infectious, which is when a cat becomes infected with a virus or disease that causes the neurological disorder to develop. Cats can also develop neurological disorders from trauma, such as being hit by a car or from aging. No matter what category the neurological disorder falls into, it is vital to get an accurate diagnosis as soon as possible so that your cat can begin receiving treatment. Below are a handful of different types of feline neurological disorders as well as a brief description of each disorder.
Epilepsy and Seizures
Did you know that cats can also suffer from epilepsy and seizures just like their human counterparts? Feline epilepsy can stem from an injury, such as a significant trauma to the brain, tumors, or metabolic irregularities, but in some cases, veterinarians are not able to determine why a cat is epileptic. In these instances, it is referred to as idiopathic epilepsy. When a cat is epileptic, his brain is not able to transmit nerve signals within his cerebral cortex, which is the part of the brain that controls a cat’s voluntary muscle movement, as well as the memory, thoughts, and sensations. If a cat is diagnosed with epilepsy, a veterinarian will use medication to attempt to reduce the frequency and severity of the seizures.
Meningitis and Encephalitis
Meningitis and encephalitis are two very serious brain conditions. Meningitis is when the membrane that surrounds the spinal cord and covers the brain becomes inflamed. Encephalitis, on the other hand, is when the brain becomes inflamed. What causes these two dangerous neurological conditions to develop? These brain conditions are often caused by infection, which can be parasitic, viral, fungal, or bacterial. When these conditions occur at the same time it is called meningoencephalitis. If a cat is diagnosed with one or both of these neurological conditions, a veterinarian may utilize corticosteroids to help lessen the inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord, the brain, or both. In addition to the use of corticosteroids, a veterinarian may also prescribe antifungals, antiparasitic, or antibiotics in order to fight off the infection that causes meningitis and/or encephalitis to develop. As the cat is undergoing treatment, he may also be given medication to help control his pain, fluids to keep him hydrated, and nutritional supplements to maintain vital nutrient levels.
Vestibular disease is a neurological disease that occurs when there is pressure exerted on the nerves that control a cat’s vestibular system in the ear canal. In many cats, this causes the feline to develop vertigo and appear dizzy or unbalanced. As a result of the vestibular disturbance, cats may also exhibit rapid abnormal eye movements or tilt their head side to side. Vestibular disease can stem from a number of different causes, such as a serious ear infection, encephalitis, meningitis, meningoencephalitis, or a tumor, to name a few. The development of vestibular disease can also indicate an immune system dysfunction in some cats. Depending on what the underlying cause of vestibular disease is, the treatment method will vary. If it is from an ear infection, for example, a veterinarian may prescribe oral medication and ear drops to treat the infection.
Cognitive dysfunction is more commonly known as dementia. Cognitive dysfunction typically occurs in cats that are in their later years and aging. These senior cats may begin to become more forgetful, such as forgetting where their water bowl is, how to use their litter box, or how to find their favorite spot to nap in the sun. Despite having successfully navigated their home and used the bathroom many times before, it may seem that they are slowly forgetting things they once knew. Cognitive dysfunction is not curable, but in some cases, a veterinarian may recommend supplements or medications to help slow the onset of symptoms and improve quality of life.
One of the lesser-known neurological disorders in cats is feline hyperesthesia or rippling skin disorder. This unique disorder occurs when a cat’s skin on his back begins to exhibit erratic movements that appear like ripples across their skin. This phenomenon appears similar to when a cat is stroked along his back and he twitches or ripples due to the stimulation. Cats will also sometimes display bursts of energy during which they may begin to aggressively chew or scratch at the affected area or run around the house meowing. There is no known cause to this bizarre neurological disorder, though it is sometimes thought to stem from stress and anxiety.
One common cause of neurological disorders in cats is tumors. Tumors can result in a number of troubling and dangerous symptoms, such as difficulty walking and maintaining balance, blindness, behavioral changes, seizures, and more. When a tumor is benign, it is called a meningioma, which develops in the meninges. The meninges is the thin protective tissue that surrounds a cat’s brain. Meningiomas can often be removed with surgery and cats can make a full recovery after their removal. It is important to note that if left untreated, meningiomas can continue to expand and exert pressure on the brain, which can result in damage and additional symptoms. Cats can also develop cancerous brain tumors that may be treated with surgery or radiation and chemotherapy, or a combination of the two. However, the viability of these treatment methods is dependent on where the cancerous tumor is and whether or not it is reachable by surgery or responsive to treatment.
Getting a Diagnosis: How it Works
If you suspect a neurological disorder may be to blame for your cat’s symptoms, it is vital to make an appointment with a licensed veterinarian. Before your appointment, compile any relevant information about your cat’s medical symptoms, a timeline of when the symptoms first appeared and if they have worsened over time, as well as a comprehensive list of the symptoms you have observed. It can be easy to become overwhelmed once you are at the veterinarian’s office. This quick step helps make sure your veterinarian will have all the foundational information they need to work towards a diagnosis.
Once you are at your appointment and have provided your veterinarian with the symptoms and reason for the visit, they will usually do a physical and neurological examination to observe your cat’s reaction to various stimuli, their motor function, and nerve function. If they believe a neurological disorder is to blame, they may order a number of different tests depending on the type of neurological disorder they suspect. These tests could include blood tests to look for infections, an autoimmune disorder, metabolic conditions, and more or an X-ray to look at the structure of the brain. Veterinarians also rely on tests like MRIs and CT scans to get a more detailed image of your cat’s body and brain.
There are additional tests that can be ordered to provide your veterinarian with all the information they need to make a diagnosis. In some cases, a veterinarian may also recommend a specialist for a second opinion or for the treatment depending on the results of their initial examination. Once they have conducted the necessary tests and determined the cause of the symptoms, they will recommend a treatment and care plan. Hopefully, that results in your cat feeling better soon.
- “Neurological Disorders.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 22 May 2018, www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/neurological-disorders.
- Burry, Madeleine. “Brain Health and Neurological Disorders in Cats.” PetCareRx, 3 Apr. 2013, www.petcarerx.com/article/brain-health-and-neurological-disorders-in-cats/914.
- “Brain Disorders in Cats – Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, Recovery, Management, Cost.” WagWalking, 17 Aug. 2016, wagwalking.com/cat/condition/brain-disorders.
- Stregowski, Jenna. “Understanding Neurological Disorders in Cats.” The Spruce Pets, 18 Feb. 2019, www.thesprucepets.com/neurological-disorders-in-cats-555286.