As a cat owner, it is frightening to see your beloved feline suffer from a seizure or an episode that is the result of a neurological disorder. 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, and if there is a lesion, it depends on its location and cause. However, a cat can't tell you if they're dizzy, disoriented, or depressed, so looking for physical representations of distress is crucial in diagnosis. If you spot any of the following signs and symptoms of neurological disorders, contact your veterinarian immediately as they could be serious.
Your cat may suddenly go into a series of seizures if it has a neurological disorder. 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. There's a possibility your cat may have epilepsy if it is having seizures. If your cat is experiencing seizures that occur minutes apart (10 to 15 minutes), call your veterinarian immediately.
If your cat has experienced an injury to its brain, it may experience sudden blindness, in addition to other symptoms on this list.
A cat with a neurological disorder may present with the inability to walk. It may also walk with a drunken gait (ataxia) or begin to walk in circles.
There are many reasons a cat may experience partial or full paralysis, including neurological disorders. You can tell if your cat is paralyzed if it can't move its head, including its tongue or neck. If your cat is unable to move its legs, back, or tail, it may be paralyzed.
Muscle twitching or tremors may be harder to spot and might require spending some quiet time studying your cat to determine if it's part of the list of symptoms indicating a possible neurological disorder.
Rapid Eye Movements
If you see that your cat's eyes are moving back and forth abnormally, involuntarily, and rapidly, this is called nystagmus and it can indicate a neurological disorder.
Your cat may have a vestibular disease (inner ear disorder) which is causing your pet to feel unbalanced. If your cat is feeling dizzy or disoriented, it will tilt its head along with other symptoms, such as confusion or having difficulties walking.
Take note if your cat is suddenly acting disoriented or confused. Call your veterinarian immediately if you notice this change in your cat's personality.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Vestibular disease occurs when the nerves that control the vestibular system in the ear canals are affected 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Hyperesthesia is a condition that 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 may suddenly scratch or overgroom the area and have a sudden burst of energy, or other abnormal response. Stress and anxiety may add to hyperesthesia syndrome.
- Toxins, such as poisons, pesticides, and insecticides can affect a cat's nervous system.
- Infectious diseases, such as FIV, FeLV, or FIP can cause neurologic symptoms
- Metabolic diseases, such as thyroid and adrenal gland disorders, can seizures and lack of motor control in a cat.
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, they will perform a comprehensive physical examination, including the following:
- Reflexes: The vet will begin by 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.
- Labs: 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.
- X-rays: Radiographs (X-rays) of the limbs and spine can reveal obvious issues, like spinal trauma or large tumors in the body.
- Imaging: 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.
- Spinal fluid tap: 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.
Treating neurological disorders in cats starts with diagnosing the disorder, and care varies greatly based on the diagnosis.
- Brain tumors: A benign tumor called meningioma can often be removed with surgery which can help your cat live a normal life after removal. Without surgical intervention, however, this type of tumor may expand, leading to more neurological dysfunction.
- Seizure disorders: When advanced diagnostics reveal no exact cause for a cat's seizures, it is usually diagnosed with epilepsy and typically managed with the daily administration of medication.
- Meningitis and encephalitis: 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.
- Vestibular disease: 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.
- Cognitive dysfunction: There is no cure for cognitive dysfunction, but some medications and nutritional supplements can help manage it.
- Intervertebral disc disease: In mild cases (when the pet can still walk), vets may try an approach that includes rest or anti-inflammatory drugs. Surgery is often the only treatment for severe cases.
- Hyperesthesia syndrome: Treatment usually includes changes that reduce anxiety, such as scheduling regular feeding, playtimes, and medication.
Prognosis for Cats With Neurological Disorders
Depending on the cause, administering daily medication could lengthen the quality of your cat's life. If a malignant brain tumor is the cause of the disorder, there may be many factors that determine your cat's prognosis. Palliative care, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgical removal 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 high-quality food as recommended by your veterinarian throughout adulthood. Allow it ample space to romp, play, and exercise. And always give your cat love and attention.
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Nervous System Disorders and Effects of Injuries in Cats. Merck Manual Veterinary Manual.
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV). Cornell Feline Health Center.
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