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. 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, 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
Neurological Disorders. Cornell University College Of Veterinary Medicine, 2020
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De Decker, Steven et al. Prevalence And Breed Predisposition For Thoracolumbar Intervertebral Disc Disease In Cats. Journal Of Feline Medicine And Surgery, vol 19, no. 4, 2016, pp. 419-423. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/1098612x16630358
Hyperesthesia Syndrome. Cornell University College Of Veterinary Medicine, 2020