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Do Cats Get Epilepsy? – Vet Help Direct


Witnessing your pet have a seizure is a terrifying prospect for an owner. Epilepsy in cats is less well known than in dogs, but is still a fairly common neurological problem for our feline friends. There are different types of seizures and types of epilepsy, and its severity and response to treatment can vary. 

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is not actually a specific disease. It is a term which encompasses any animal who suffers from repeated, chronic seizures. There are many different types of epilepsy, and many different diseases which can cause seizure activity. Idiopathic epilepsy (IE) is the name for when there are repeated fits, but no underlying cause can be found. 

What is a seizure?

A seizure, or fit, is a short, abrupt event. There are two main types of seizure.

Generalised

These are the most obvious, more ‘typical’ type of fit. The cat will suddenly collapse, shake in all four limbs, may make chewing or twitching movements of the face, and can urinate and defecate. There is a complete loss of awareness. Seizures usually last from around 30 seconds to 3 minutes. There may be some signals just before your cat fits, such as salivation or vocalisation, and they are often wobbly and disorientated for a period afterwards. 

Partial

These fits only affect part of the body, and so are more difficult to spot. They may present differently in individual cats. Examples include eye or facial twitches, abnormal and sudden limb movements, twitching of the head or neck, vocalisation and drooling. 

If there is a succession of fits without only very short pauses between, this is called ‘cluster seizures’. If there is continuous seizure activity for over 5 minutes, this is termed ‘status epilepticus’. Both of these conditions require urgent veterinary attention. 

What causes epilepsy?

Epileptic fits can be caused by two general categories: problems inside the brain (intracranial causes) or outside the brain, in the rest of the body (extracranial causes).

In these cats, their brain is perfectly healthy, but disease in the rest of the body causes seizures. Causes include poisons, high blood pressure or abnormal heart rhythms, or metabolic imbalances such as through liver or kidney disease, high calcium levels or low glucose. There are often other symptoms alongside the seizures, such as vomiting, lethargy, and changes to thirst, appetite or urination. 

Intracranial causes

These are often divided into primary and secondary epilepsy. Primary epilepsy is idiopathic, which means that there is no apparent cause. The figures vary, but some studies estimate that between 21-59% of cats who have seizures likely have idiopathic, or primary epilepsy. Cats with IE are completely normal between seizures. 

Secondary epilepsy refers to seizures which have a known cause in the brain: tumours, infections or inflammation, head trauma, a stroke, or a congenital brain defect. There are often other symptoms alongside the fits, such as blindness, disorientation, changes to behaviour or uncoordinated movements, although fits can be a sole symptom. 

What should I do if my cat is having a fit?

It can be very distressing to watch your pet have a seizure. Try to remain calm, and try not to interfere. If your cat is in danger of hurting itself, for example it is near the edge of the stairs, or furniture, then move them to a safe place. Time the seizure – they usually last between 30 seconds to 3 minutes. Once the seizure ends, keep your cat undisturbed in a dark, quiet place. It can take some time for the effects of the fit to wear off, and your cat may seem disorientated, wobbly, or even blind, but these effects should be temporary. Some cats may become aggressive in the immediate post-seizure period. 

Once your cat is recovered, seek advice from a veterinary surgeon. If the seizure lasted less than 3 minutes and your cat is recovering, they may advise to wait a while before an appointment – this is because any stress soon after a fit may trigger another. 

However, if the seizure lasts longer than a few minutes, or they are having cluster seizures, contact your veterinary surgeon as an emergency.

How will the vet diagnose epilepsy?

If seizure activity is confirmed, your vet may run some tests to distinguish between the types of epilepsy. Primary epilepsy can only be diagnosed if the other extra- and intracranial causes are ruled out, using blood tests, blood pressure measurements and even an MRI scan or a sample of the cerebrospinal fluid if needed. Your vet will discuss which tests are appropriate for your pet depending on their individual circumstances. 

Can epilepsy be treated?

Appropriate treatment for epilepsy will depend on the cause of the fits. If idiopathic epilepsy is suspected or diagnosed, then there are various medications to control the seizures. Treatment is often balanced depending on how often your cat is having seizures, and how severe they are. Medication will likely be continued for life, and your cat will need regular veterinary monitoring. If your cat’s fits aren’t due to another disease state and they can be well controlled, it is perfectly possible for them to go on to lead a long and happy life.

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