Seizures in Cats

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Domestic cat lying on bed
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Seizures affect a very small percentage of the feline population. They occur as a result of abnormal electrical discharges in the brain and manifest in various ways, some more severe than others. Seizures are distressing for both cats and their owners, and they can grow progressively worse if not treated. Because seizures can occur as a result of different brain dysfunctions, it's important to seek veterinary help to evaluate the cause of a cat's seizures so that a targeted treatment plan can be established.

What Is a Seizure?

Generally speaking, a seizure is what happens when something disrupts the brain's connection with the nerves in a cat's body. There are different causes and manifestations of seizures, but they are all electrical disturbances in the brain that come on suddenly and are involuntary. Some seizures involve violent movement in one or more areas of the body; others are much more subtle and resemble a trance-like state in which the cat is unresponsive.

Symptoms of Seizures in Cats

Seizures have a range of symptoms, some of which are more readily noticeable than others. In cats, they can be divided into two categories of symptomatic behavior called focal and generalized. While a few of these symptoms can indicate conditions other than seizures, their repeated occurrence should prompt a visit to the veterinarian for further investigation.

Symptoms

  • Drooling
  • Twitching (limbs, eyes, or whiskers)
  • Tail chasing or other obsessive behavior
  • Shaking (tremors)
  • Rigidity
  • Loud vocalizations
  • Unprompted aggression
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Thrashing or paddling of limbs

Focal Seizures

During a focal seizure, a cat may cry loudly as though it is in pain, behave aggressively, even if it is not normally an aggressive cat, salivate or drool excessively, and exhibit other atypical behavior like obsessive tail chasing. Sometimes a cat will lose function of a leg, will appear to be chewing and staring off, or be unable to get up. You might also see specific areas of your cat's body (eyelids, mouth, ears) flutter. Despite a potentially dazed appearance, cats remain conscious during focal seizures. It's important to note that focal seizures can turn into generalized seizures.

Generalized Seizures

A generalized (or grand-mal) seizure causes a cat to lose consciousness. The cat may fall over and start shaking uncontrollably. The legs may move in a paddling fashion, as though your cat is trying to swim, or they may become rigid and straight. Your cat's mouth may also open and close involuntarily. Its head may arch backward, and it may even urinate or defecate during a seizure. The severity and length of a generalized seizure can vary greatly.

seizure symptoms in cats illustration

The Spruce / Michaela Buttignol

Causes of Seizures in Cats

There are several causes of seizure in cats, ranging from unknown (idiopathic) causes to diseases to head trauma. Epilepsy is a term used to describe recurrent seizures in cats due to a chronic stimulus, whether internal or external, such as:

  • Brain tumor
  • Inflammatory disease
  • Genetic and/or structural abnormalities in the brain
  • Systemic disease (liver or kidney diseases)
  • Toxin exposure (flea and tick medication, sprays, dips, and shampoos that contain pyrethrin)
  • Head trauma
  • Viruses
  • Low blood sugar
  • Parasites

What To Do During a Seizure

If you suspect your cat is having a seizure, make sure you do what you can to prevent injury. Avoid moving your cat if possible unless it is in an unsafe place. In that case, use a towel to pick up the cat to avoid being scratched or bitten. Keep other animals in the household away from your cat during a seizure, and keep your cat safely confined after a seizure if it is disoriented and clumsy.

Diagnosing Seizures in Cats

To assist your veterinarian with determining the cause of your cat's seizures, be ready to provide:

  • Age of onset of seizures
  • Frequency and length of seizures
  • Seizure behavior
  • Any events or encounters before seizure activity (i.e. eating a certain food, excessive excitement or stress, exposure to toxins, or new medications)
  • History of head trauma

Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam and diagnostic blood work to rule out easily found causes of seizures. More advanced diagnostics like an MRI or cerebral spinal fluid sampling and evaluation may be necessary if the cause is not readily apparent.

Treatment

The success of seizure treatment is usually dependent on the cause of the seizure. If the cause is unknown or due to past head trauma, a cat may be treated with medications to manage the frequency and severity of the seizures. Seizures that repeat at frequent intervals are usually treated with one or more anticonvulsant medications, usually for life.

If the seizures are caused by toxicity, that toxin will need to be removed from the body. This may involve bathing the cat if a topical flea medication was applied containing pyrethrin. Your vet may induce vomiting if the cat ingested a toxin or administer medications to counteract the effects of the toxin. Acute seizures due to toxic exposure will likely not require lifelong medication.

Seizures caused by brain tumors may be treated with surgery to remove the tumor. If surgery is not a viable option, then anticonvulsants may be employed to help suppress seizures and maintain your cat's quality of life as long as possible.

Prognosis for Cats with Seizures

The prognosis for a cat with seizures varies widely based on the cause and severity of the condition. If there is no acutely life-threatening condition present (like a brain tumor), then anti-convulsant medications may be effective at managing the cat's seizures. Time and patience may be required to determine the appropriate dose for your cat, and these drugs often have side effects that must be monitored regularly monitored to also maintain your cat's overall health. Seizures induced by toxic exposure carry a guarded prognosis based on your cat's resilience to the poison and the efficacy of the supportive treatment your vet provides.

How to Prevent Seizures

Many seizures can not be prevented because they are caused by unknown neurological disturbances or brain tumors. However, you can prevent seizures due to toxic exposure by making sure your cat is not exposed to dangerous chemicals like pyrethrins, especially those in pesticides designed for dogs. Keeping your cat indoors will not only eliminate the need for chemical flea and tick preventatives but also help prevent seizure-causing head injuries due to car collisions and other types of trauma.

Types of Seizures in Cats


Seizures are characterized, based upon the cause, into three general types:

  • Idiopathic seizures are those in which the underlying cause is undetermined.
  • Secondary epileptic seizures occur due to a structural lesion in the brain.
  • Reactive epileptic seizures happen when the brain reacts to systemic injury or physiological stresses.
If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.
Article Sources
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  2. Work-Up, Therapy And Complications Of Seizures In CatsVIN, 2020

  3. Moore SA. Seizures and epilepsy in cats. Vet Med (Auckl). 2014;5:41-47. Published 2014 Jul 30. doi:10.2147/VMRR.S62077