Feline Neurological Disorders

feline neurological disorders
Robert Daly / Getty Images

Neurological disorders can occur in cats just as they can in humans. As a cat owner, it can be very frightening to see your beloved feline suffer from a seizure or other mysterious episode. 

Your Cat's Central Nervous System

The central nervous system is a complex network of nerves that work with the brain and spinal cord to send messages to the body. The brain sends signals through the spinal cord that travel to the nerves, telling organs and muscles how to function properly. When something in the body happens that interferes with these signals, a variety of problems can occur.

Signs of Neurological Disorders in Cats

There are many different signs that may appear if your cat has a neurological disorder. If you notice any of these signs in your cat, it is essential that you bring your cat to the veterinarian for an examination.

  • Seizures 
  • Inability to walk
  • Muscle twitching/tremors
  • Acting disoriented or confused
  • Head tilt
  • Abnormal, involuntary, rapid eye movements (nystagmus)
  • Dizziness
  • Falling to one side
  • Staggering/drunken gait (ataxia)
  • Paralysis (face, limbs, full body)
  • Head pressing
  • Walking in circles (involuntary; not playing)
  • Sudden blindness
  • Depression
  • Sudden change in behavior/attitude

Diagnosing Your Cat's Neurological Disorder

If your cat exhibits any of the above signs, you need to see your vet sooner than later. The vet will begin by talking to you about your cat's history and performing a comprehensive physical examination. This will include a neurological evaluation where the vet checks your cat's reflexes, inspects the eyes, and assesses pain. In many cases, the vet will also want to watch your catwalk around.

Your vet will recommend additional diagnostics based on the outcome of the examination. Often, initial testing involves lab work. The vet will likely want to run a complete blood count, blood chemistry, urinalysis, and possibly more. A thyroid test will likely be necessary since feline hyperthyroidism can cause some neurological signs. Your vet may also wish to check your cat's blood pressure because hypertension (high blood pressure) is known to affect the central nervous system. Radiographs (x-rays) of the limbs and/or spine may be recommended depending on your cat's signs. Radiographs may reveal obvious issues, like spinal trauma or large tumors in the body.

Your vet may also wish to perform special lab tests to rule out potential causes for your cat's neurological dysfunction. Certain toxins are known to affect the central nervous system. Some parasites, such as toxoplasmosis, have an impact on the brain. Infection diseases like FIVFeLV, or FIP often affect the CNS. 

Although neurological conditions are rarely diagnosed with lab work and radiographs alone, these tests can rule out metabolic or other causes of the neurological dysfunction.

If your vet is unable to determine the exact cause of your cat's signs, you may be referred to a veterinary neurologist. Veterinary neurologists are specialists who have completed a neurology residency after vet school. They are neurology experts. The neurologist will review your primary vet's findings, talk to you about your cat's medical history, and perform an examination on your cat. At this time, one or more of the following advanced diagnostics may be recommended:

  • MRI of the brain and/or spine: Magnetic resonance imaging uses a magnetic field to compute an image of the body's internal structures. This advanced test can reveal tumors, inflammation, and other abnormalities.
  • CT scan of the brain and/or spine: A computed tomography scan uses x-rays to computer-generated cross-sections of an area in the body. Like the MRI, the CT may reveal tumors, inflammation, and other abnormalities. 
  • Cerebral spinal fluid tap: Similar to a spinal tap, the CSF tap involves insertion of a special needle into the back of the skull where it meets the spine to collect cerebral spinal fluid. Microscopic analysis of this fluid can reveal the presence of infection, blood, and other abnormal cells in the spinal column.

These tests may reveal the cause of your cat's neurological dysfunction. If so, the neurologist will discuss treatment options.

There are cases when all the tests come out normal, but they are still important tools in ruling out conditions. Many neurological disorders can only be diagnosed by excluding other conditions.

Epilepsy/Seizure Disorders

A seizure is a sudden episode of abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Seizures usually involve some loss of body control, such as twitching, convulsing, and often involuntary urination/defecation. Cats may have seizures for a variety of reasons. When advanced diagnostics reveal no exact cause for the seizures, the cat is usually diagnosed with epilepsy.

Epilepsy in cats is typically treated with medications. Your vet will need to monitor your cat over time and adjust medication as needed. It is important to communicate with your vet about your cat's health and return regularly for recommended follow-up visits.

Brain Tumors

Brain tumors are relatively common causes of neurological dysfunction in cats. A tumor in the brain may cause serious signs like seizures, trouble walking, and blindness, or the signs may be as minor as slight behavior changes. It all depends on the size and location of the tumor.

The most common type of brain tumor seen in cats is a benign tumor called a meningioma. These tumors can often be removed easily with surgery. While brain surgery is as major as it sounds, cats with operable meningiomas usually go on to live completely normal lives after tumor removal. Without surgical removal, these tumors expand and cause increased pressure on the brain, leading to more neurological dysfunction.

Cancerous brain tumors may also occur in cats. If the tumor cannot be removed with surgery, the radiation treatment and/or chemotherapy may be helpful. Your neurologist may recommend a consultation with a veterinary oncologist if a malignant tumor is suspected.

Meningitis and Encephalitis

Meningitis is the inflammation of the meninges, the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord. Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain. These two conditions may occur at the same time. This is called meningoencephalitis. 

Meningitis, encephalitis, and meningoencephalitis may be caused by infections (often bacterial, viral, fungal, or parasitic). In some cases, the infection occurs because the cat's immune system is not functioning properly.

Treatment includes the use of corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and alter the immune system. Antibiotics, antifungals, or antiparasitic drugs are used when indicated. Supportive care will also be given when needed. This may involve fluid administration, pain management, and even nutritional supplements.

Vestibular Disease

Vestibular disease in cats causes vertigo. Cats may seem drunk or dizzy, have a head tilt, and show rapid abnormal eye movements. These signs occur when there is pressure on the nerves that control the vestibular system. These nerves are near the ear canals, so a major ear infection can lead to vestibular dysfunction, or a tumor may be putting pressure on the nerves. The inflammation caused by meningitis, encephalitis, or meningoencephalitis could also be the culprit. In some cases, vets cannot find a cause, so a diagnosis of idiopathic vestibular dysfunction is made.

Treatment depends on the actual cause of the dysfunction. If an ear infection is present, your cat may need ear drops and/or oral medications. Supportive care is given when needed.

Cognitive Dysfunction

Cognitive dysfunction is sometimes called dementia. This disorder is most common in senior cats and is a form of senility. Similar to Alzheimer's Disease in humans, cognitive dysfunction leads to memory loss, confusion, and depression. Cats with dementia may seem to "forget" how to use the litter box, where the food bowl is, and how to navigate through the house. 

Before diagnosing cognitive dysfunction, it is important to rule out other problems. Your vet will likely recommend the full battery of neurological testing before settling on a diagnosis of dementia.

There is no cure for cognitive dysfunction, but some medications and nutritional supplements may be able to slow the progression of dementia.

Intervertebral Disc Disease

Sometimes called disc herniation or "slipped disc," IVDD involves the spine and the discs that rest between the vertebra. When one or more of these discs becomes inflamed or displaced, it puts pressure on the spinal cord. This leads to pain and possible paralysis. IVDD can occur anywhere along the spine, from the neck to the base of the tail.

Though more common in dogs, IVDD sometimes occurs in cats. Diagnosis is usually made by MRI. In minor cases (when the pet can still walk) vets may try a conservative approach to treatment. This involves rest, anti-inflammatory drugs, and muscle relaxants. Surgery is often the only treatment when pain is severe or the pet has difficulty walking. 

Hyperesthesia Syndrome

Though rarely diagnosed, this condition likely affects a relatively large number of cats. Sometimes called rippling skin disorder, feline hyperesthesia is often seen as a reaction to being petted or touched along the back. The skin may appear to ripple or twitch. The cat will suddenly scratch or overgroom the area. There may be a sudden burst of energy causing the care to run and act abnormally. Some cats will vocalize and seem restless at times.

Hyperesthesia syndrome is not considered serious and may stem from stress and anxiety. It is important to see your vet and rule out more serious causes for the behavior. Treatment usually involves making environmental changes to reduce anxiety.​