Meningitis literally means 'inflammation of the meninges' and it is a rare but life-threatening neurological condition. The meninges are the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord, and meningitis in cats can occur by itself or it can happen in conjunction with other neurological illnesses such as myelitis (inflammation of the spinal cord) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).
Symptoms of Meningitis in Cats
Any neurological disease can lead to a host of symptoms and meningitis is no different. Most of the clinical signs seen are considered to be classical for a neurological disease process. If your cat exhibits any of the following symptoms you should seek immediate veterinary attention for them.
Causes of Meningitis in Cats
Meningitis, unfortunately, can have a multitude of causes.
A viral infection, such as Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), can cause meningitis. FIP is caused by a feline-specific coronavirus. There is a vaccine that has been developed for FIP but most vets don't normally vaccinate for it. This is because studies have shown that the efficacy of this vaccine 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.
Bacteria, whether they are aerobic (those requiring oxygen to survive) or anaerobic (those that don't require oxygen to survive) can cause meningitis if the bacteria manages to enter your 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.
The parasite Toxoplasma gondii is a protozoal parasite that causes toxoplasmosis and can also cause meningitis. This parasite can be contracted by your cat if they hunt and consume an animal infected with the parasite.
There are non-infectious causes of meningitis as well. These can include immune mediated disorders, where your cat's immune system reacts to and attacks its own cells and tissue.
Diagnosing Meningitis in Cats
When you bring your cat to the vet because they are displaying troubling neurological signs, they vet 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 response. Your cat's menace reflex is when they instinctively blink when something comes close to their eye.
Once done examining your cat, your vet will likely want to run basic diagnostics. This can include checking blood pressure, which can be abnormally low if your cat has meningitis, as well as blood work and a urinalysis to determine if there is loss of 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 as culturing it can identify any infectious agent causing symptoms.
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 decreased the inflammation in your cat's nervous system.
Unfortunately, there is no good medical cure for viral meningitis. If your vet suspects your cat's meningitis to be viral in nature they will prescribe supportive treatments. These will help keep your cat comfortable and will help to manage symptoms as best as possible. In severe cases, your cat may require hospitalization for round-the-clock nursing care and monitoring.
Meningitis, while rare, requires prompt and aggressive treatment. Your cat's prognosis depends on the cause. In most cases, your cat's prognosis for recovery and a high quality of life is good, but each case will be different. If your cat contracts viral meningitis their prognosis may be a bit more guarded.