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Neurological Issues in Cats

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If you have a feline living in your home, learning about common neurological issues in cats may be helpful. This can include recognizing symptoms, knowing what’s involved with a feline neurological exam, and understanding available treatment options. Although hearing that your cat has a neurological issue may be a bit scary at first, you can be more confident in getting them the care they require by better understanding your best pal’s condition.

Common Neurological Disorders in Cats

Like people, cats can also be affected by a number of neurological issues. A feline’s brain, spinal cord, and nerves are each a sensitive area of the body, but together make up a complex system that provides essential functions. That said, the brain, spinal cord, and nerves can all easily be affected by trauma or disrupted by health issues, which can lead to a myriad of other problems.

When a neurological disorder affects the brain, this can often lead to other issues, such as seizures. In addition, if the condition is centralized to the spinal cord, a cat’s limbs are typically affected, although this can range from a slight loss of balance to complete paralysis. Lastly, when a cat’s nerves are affected by the disorder, nearly any area of their body can be affected, whether their mouth, eyes, or legs.

Some neurological disorders in felines can include:

  • Encephalitis and meningitis
    Encephalitis is a rare but potentially life-threatening condition involving inflammation of the brain. Symptoms can appear spontaneously and progress rapidly. Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of encephalitis, but the long-term prognosis is often good by managing the condition properly. Meningitis, while relatively similar to encephalitis, involves the inflammation of the outer membranes (meninges) surrounding the brain, the spinal cord, and the central nervous system. When encephalitis and meningitis appear simultaneously, it’s referred to as meningoencephalitis.
  • Brain tumors
    Felines can be affected by a few types of brain tumors, which can be rare but are still a serious health issue. These tumors can cause seizures, vision problems, balance issues, irregular sleeping patterns, and excessive pacing. Treatment options typically include chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery, but you and your veterinarian can discuss which would suit your cat’s needs the best.
  • Seizure disorders
    Epilepsy is perhaps the most well-known seizure disorder and is caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Seizures can vary in severity and how long they last. It is also not uncommon for your cat to need some time to recover after an episode. Often, epilepsy is managed well with medication.
  • Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)
    IVDD occurs when the cushioning discs between the spinal column's vertebrae harden. Although this is another relatively rare disease, it can become serious, leading to paralysis of the hind legs. Technically, cats of any age or breed can be affected by this condition, but it typically occurs more often in older cats. In less severe cases, treatment can include medication and a period of rest before regular activity is resumed. With more severe instances, laminectomy surgery may be the better option.
  • Cognitive dysfunction
    This syndrome is often described as the cat version of dementia or Alzheimer’s. It typically occurs in older cats and can be accompanied by symptoms such as behavioral changes, memory loss, and an altered sleep pattern. There is no cure for cognitive dysfunction syndrome, but treatment can help manage your cat’s symptoms and make them more comfortable.
  • Vestibular disease
    This disease can affect a cat of any breed or age. An ear infection often brings it on, but tumors or exposure to certain toxins can also be an underlying cause. It is also common for most cases of vestibular disease to be idiopathic, meaning that the cause is unknown. The symptoms of this disease, which typically include a loss of balance, incoordination, involuntary darting of the eyes, head tilting, and vomiting, can all appear rather suddenly. Since the cause is often unknown, vestibular disease treatment can be tricky but typically involves reducing the effects of the current symptoms. The good news about this disease is that it is usually short-term and will resolve in a few weeks.
  • Hyperesthesia syndrome
    Also known as feline hyperesthesia syndrome, rolling skin syndrome, and twitchy cat disease, this condition involves your cat having involuntary muscle contractions and behavior changes. This syndrome is still not widely well-known, but it’s believed to have neurological, psychological, and dermatological causes. To receive an official diagnosis, your veterinarian will need to rule out many other possible health problems. Treatment for this syndrome can vary depending on your cat’s symptoms and how they respond to treatment options such as medication, behavior modification, and environmental changes.

Although many neurological issues in cats share similar symptoms, it’s important to remember that each condition is unique and has its own set of causes, common signs, treatment options, and prognosis.

What Causes Sudden Neurological Issues in Cats?

Since many different types of neurological issues can affect your feline friend, there can also be a variety of causes. In addition to the conditions mentioned above, neurological disorders can also be brought on through trauma, such as injury to the head or spinal cord—car accidents being a prime example. Besides acquiring a neurological issue at some point in their life, it is also possible for your cat to be born with one. In that case, it would be classified as a congenital condition.

Neurological issues can also appear when there’s a disruption in some of your cat’s normal body functions—epilepsy is a prime example. Remember, idiopathic causes, meaning that the underlying cause is unknown, are also relatively common with neurological issues. Although having this unknown factor may cause the addition of a few extra steps in your cat’s diagnosing process, your veterinarian can still tailor your cat’s treatment plan to manage their condition’s symptoms.

Signs of Neurological Issues in Cats

If your feline friend has a neurological issue, their symptoms will be reflective of the specific condition. Although there are many different causes and types of neurological problems, the symptoms often overlap, at least to a certain degree. Common signs of neurological issues in cats include:

  • Seizures
  • Vision impairment or blindness
  • Difficulty walking
  • Ataxia (loss of coordination and balance)
  • Paralysis
  • Twitching
  • Head tilting
  • Nystagmus (involuntary, rapid darting of eyes)
  • Confusion
  • Weakness
  • Tremors
  • Walking in circles, pacing

Depending on your cat’s condition, these symptoms may appear suddenly and quickly progress. Still, in other cases, only one or two may occur over an extended period. As a pet parent, keeping close tabs on your cat’s normal behavior and daily routines is helpful. If you notice unusual behavior, which may arguably be tricky to catch in cats sometimes, contact your veterinarian right away. You know your cat best, and if you suspect something else may be happening below the surface, it never hurts to get your worries checked out.

Since many neurological issues tend to affect older cats more, it’s essential that you don’t dismiss odd senior cat behavior as “a sign of old age.” It’s equally important to monitor your cat’s health and behavior throughout their lifetime. Just because a condition typically occurs in older cats doesn’t mean it couldn’t still pop up in a kitten.

What Is Done at a Neurological Exam for Cats?

Your veterinarian must perform a complete diagnostic exam to officially diagnose your cat with a neurological condition. They will most likely begin this process by reviewing your cat’s full medical history and asking about recent symptoms, including their mental and physical well-being. Any notes you have on how long the symptoms have been present or any new developments may be helpful to your veterinarian. In addition, any video footage you can show your veterinarian, particularly if your cat displays issues with their limbs or mobility, can also greatly assist the diagnosing process.

Neurological testing for cats will typically involve testing your cat’s reflexes, including their limbs, eyes, and how they move in general. Blood tests are another standard part of the diagnosing process. The results can provide insightful knowledge about possible issues while also helping to eliminate conditions that aren’t the underlying problem.

In some cases, your veterinarian may order X-rays to have a closer look to see if any brain tumors, fractures, or spinal trauma are present. If the results are still inconclusive you may be referred to visit a specialist, such as a veterinary neurologist. Further imaging could also be necessary. An MRI or CT scan can provide more in-depth views, making spotting any possible tumors, inflammation, or abnormalities easier.

If the professionals are still at a loss of what the underlying issue is, and your feline friend’s condition continues to prove itself elusive, a spinal fluid tap could be the next recommended step. However, since this procedure is more involved, it’s not performed as often and is typically left as a last-resort option.

sphynx cat with green eyes and a collar and tag

Can Neurological Disorders in Cats Be Cured?

When discussing neurological disorders, it’s essential to distinguish the terms “cure” and “treatment.” Although the two are often used interchangeably in everyday speech, they are distinct. When a condition, syndrome, or disorder is cured, the symptoms will disappear, and your cat will be completely rid of the issue. However, if you learn that a health issue is treatable, there are options to manage the symptoms, but the condition will still be present. Many types of treatment are available for neurological disorders in cats, and treatments are often more common than cures. These treatments include:

  • Surgery
    This can be ideal for a cat diagnosed with a brain tumor. Without surgical intervention, it can be possible for tumors to grow and become more problematic. However, with surgery, there’s a much better chance that your feline friend can continue to live a normal life.
  • Medication
    The medicine used to treat your cat’s condition will depend on their neurological disorder. For instance, seizure disorders are often managed with daily medication administered for the rest of a cat’s life. With issues such as encephalitis or meningitis, corticosteroids can help reduce inflammation. Other medications, such as antibiotics, antifungal, antiviral, antiparasitic, and anticonvulsants, may also be prescribed to better manage symptoms.
  • Supportive Care
    Supportive care can take many forms, but the goal is to help your cat be most comfortable in their environment while maximizing their mobility and establishing a new routine that will still provide them with a healthy lifestyle. For instance, if your best pal has mobility or balance issues, consider the location of their bed, litter box, and bowls. Even the type of litter box you use can make a big difference—ones with lower sides can be much more accessible. Supportive care may also include changing your cat’s diet or adding daily supplements. In some instances, alternative therapies may prove to be effective as well.

You and your veterinarian, and any other specialist you work with, can create a treatment plan that will best suit your cat’s needs. Remember, it’s essential to consult your veterinarian before making any significant changes to your cat’s meal plan.

The initial process of learning about your cat’s neurological issue diagnosis may not be the easiest. However, with proper treatment and knowledge of how to manage your feline friend’s condition, you and your best pal can learn how to continue a healthy and happy lifestyle together.

An ASPCA Pet Health Insurance plan can help you with eligible costs for covered conditions like surgery expenses for accidents and help provide peace of mind that your pet can receive the care they need. Check out our online resources to learn more about your insurance options and get a free quote today. The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.

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