Meningitis is a rare but life-threatening neurological condition in cats that can occur by itself or in conjunction with other neurological illnesses such as myelitis (inflammation of the spinal cord) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). Prompt diagnosis of the cause is critical as some cases can be cured with swift and aggressive treatment.
What Is Meningitis?
Meningitis is inflammation of the meninges (membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord). This inflammation is often due to an underlying infection or disease that must be identified to determine appropriate treatment options.
Symptoms of Meningitis in Cats
Most of the clinical signs of meningitis are specific to neurological disease but may also indicate other conditions that affect the brain and spine. If your cat exhibits any of the following symptoms, you should seek immediate veterinary attention.
Meningitis is a painful condition that may cause a cat to behave differently due to discomfort, but it also affects the functioning of nerves that control the body's actions. Head tilting or clumsiness are classic signs of a neurological affliction, and seizures are an indication of drastic electrical "misfiring" within the brain.
In some cases, meningitis occurs as a result of a bacterial or viral infection, which can trigger a fever as an immune response.
Causes of Meningitis
Meningitis is often a symptom of an underlying illness and, as such, it has several possible causes.
- A viral infection, such as Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), can cause meningitis. FIP is caused by a feline-specific coronavirus.
- Bacteria of different species can cause meningitis if the pathogens enter a cat's central nervous system. This is why it is important to seek prompt treatment for any bacterial infections your cat develops.
- Fungal infections such as those caused by fungi in the Cryptococcus genus can cause meningitis.
- Parasites such asToxoplasma gondii (the protozoa that cause toxoplasmosis) can also cause meningitis. This parasite can be contracted by your cat if they hunt and consume an animal infected with the parasite.
- Non-infectious causes include auto-immune disorders in which a cat's immune system reacts to and attacks its own cells and tissue.
Diagnosing Meningitis in Cats
A veterinarian will start with a full physical examination, including a full neurological exam. In addition to any other abnormalities, your vet will be checking your cat for neck pain and a decreased or lack of menace (blink) response.
Other potential diagnostic tests may include checking blood pressure, which can be abnormally low if your cat has meningitis, as well as blood work and a urinalysis to evaluate organ function.
More advanced testing such as an MRI or CT scan can give your vet a more detailed look at the extent of your cat's meningitis. Finally, your vet may want to collect a sample of your cat's cerebrospinal fluid because a culture test can help identify any infectious causes.
Most general practitioners don't have the capabilities to perform these advanced tests, so your vet may refer you to a neurologist.
Treatment for meningitis in cats will depend on the causative agent as well as the primary symptoms.
Your vet may prescribe antibiotics or antifungals if they suspect a bacterial or fungal infection. Steroids such as prednisolone can also be prescribed to help decrease the inflammation in your cat's nervous system.
Unfortunately, there is no good medical cure for viral meningitis. If your vet suspects a viral cause, then specific supportive treatments may help to keep your cat comfortable and manage symptoms. In severe cases, your cat may require hospitalization for round-the-clock nursing care and monitoring.
Prognosis for Cats with Meningitis
Meningitis, while rare, requires prompt and aggressive treatment. Your cat's prognosis depends on the cause and the efficacy of treatment options. In most cases, your cat's prognosis for recovery is good, but each case is unique. If your cat contracts viral meningitis or FIP, then the prognosis may be a bit more guarded.
How to Prevent Meningitis in Cats
There is a vaccine that has been developed for FIP but most vets don't normally vaccinate for it because studies have shown that the efficacy is variable, if effective at all. As such, the American Association of Feline Practitioners does not currently recommend it as a core vaccine for cats.
While all causes of meningitis can not be avoided, the best way to help prevent this inflammatory condition is to treat your cat's wounds and infections without delay so that the pathogens don't have a chance to affect the brain or spinal cord.
Neurology: Encephalitis In Dogs And Cats. NC State Veterinary Medicine.