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Epilepsy in cats may not be as commonly discussed as it is in humans, but it’s a reality many feline pet parents face. Just like their two-legged counterparts, our whiskered friends can experience seizures resulting from this neurological disorder. Having a cat with epilepsy can be filled with uncertainties and concerns. 

But understanding the condition, its symptoms, and the available treatments can make a world of difference. In this article, you’ll learn more about epilepsy in cats, empowering you with the essential knowledge needed to support and care for your furry companions. 

Definition of epilepsy in cats

What is Epilepsy? 

Epilepsy is a brain or neurological disorder characterized by recurrent, unprovoked seizures — abnormal excessive or synchronous electrical activity in the brain. [1] These electrical disturbances can result in a variety of symptoms, including temporary confusion, staring, uncontrollable jerking of the arms and legs, and loss of consciousness. 

Unfortunately, the causes of epilepsy in cats can be diverse, ranging from genetic predispositions to unknown causes. Epilepsy in cats is categorized into idiopathic epilepsy, symptomatic epilepsy, probable symptomatic epilepsy, and reactive epileptic seizures. Idiopathic epilepsy in cats arises without an obvious underlying brain issue, which was once believed to be rare in cats. However, a significant number of cats with seizures don’t exhibit an underlying disease. [1]

Conversely, symptomatic epilepsy in cats has an identifiable underlying brain abnormality or injury, which can be caused by traumatic brain injury, infectious diseases, toxins, tumors, and degenerative disorders. Probable symptomatic epilepsy in cats is a situation where there’s a strong suspicion of an underlying cause for the seizures, but it hasn’t been definitively identified. [1] 

Reactive epileptic seizures occur as a response to something else and happen due to temporary conditions or disturbances in the body rather than a brain abnormality. For instance, they can be triggered by metabolic issues like low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), toxins, infections, and certain medications. [1] 

Diagnosing the type of epilepsy is based on recognizing the stages and characteristics of the seizure. In general, there are two types:

Generalized seizures

Generalized seizures, also known as grand mal seizures,  in cats affect both sides of the brain and can cause muscle spasms, falls, or loss of consciousness. They’re typically what most people think of when they hear the word “seizure”. Facial movements, such as chewing or twitching, may accompany these episodes, and it’s not uncommon for the cat to drool, urinate, or defecate involuntarily during the seizure. [2]

These episodes can last up to three minutes, but some cats might experience back-to-back seizures with minimal breaks in between, known as cluster seizures. They can also experience continuous seizures with no break in between, known as epilepticus. [2]  

Partial seizures

Also known as focal seizures, partial seizures originate in a specific part of the brain. Cats are more likely to have partial seizures than dogs. [2] These episodes can be subtle, making them difficult to identify. Symptoms might include drooling, twitching of the face, unusual vocalization, growling, or unusual head and neck movements. [2]

Over time, partial seizures can develop into generalized seizures. In some cases, multiple partial seizures can occur in a day, known as cluster seizures. 

Symptoms of Epilepsy in Cats

Epileptic cat seizures go through four key stages: prodrome, aura, ictus, and postictal. [1] The prodrome phase involves restless or anxious behavior and comes before the seizure. The aura, an initial sense of the seizure, is hard to distinguish from the prodrome without EEG. Meanwhile, the ictus is the seizure itself, followed by the postictal stage, which may exhibit signs such as aggression or blindness. [1]

Stages of a seizure in cats with characteristics

Cats typically have complex focal seizures, which display signs like facial twitching or urination. These can quickly be generalized, making them appear as primary generalized seizures. Usually, the seizure lasts no longer than three minutes. However, it’s important to note that various disorders can mimic symptoms of epilepsy in cats, such as behavioral changes, sleep disorders, and other types of illnesses. [1]

What Causes Epilepsy? 

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible for a vet to determine what causes epilepsy in cats. In general, there are multiple factors that may contribute, and epilepsy is often categorized based on the underlying reason. 

Idiopathic epilepsy in cats is when there’s no identifiable cause for the seizures. While it’s believed to be genetic in some cases, a definitive genetic link hasn’t been established for cats. [1] Age can also be a factor, with younger cats having idiopathic epilepsy while older cats have symptomatic epilepsy. [1] 

List of the causes of epilepsy in cats

Symptomatic epilepsy occurs as a result of an identifiable brain abnormality or damage, with potential causes including: 

  • Traumatic brain injury: Accidents or other trauma can lead to brain damage that results in seizures. 
  • Infectious diseases: Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), feline leukemia virus (FeLV), and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) are among the infectious diseases that can cause neurological issues, including seizures. 
  • Toxicity: Ingestion of or exposure to toxic substances can cause seizures. However, in these cases, recurrent seizures are not expected unless the cat is exposed again. 
  • Tumors: Brain tumors, whether malignant or benign, can cause seizures. 
  • Metabolic disorders: Issues like hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or liver disease can lead to seizures. 
  • Congenital defects: Some cats might be born with brain malformations that contribute to recurrent seizures. [1]

Reactive seizures are not due to a primary brain dysfunction but are caused by systemic issues that influence brain function. [1] Examples include severe liver and kidney diseases, hyperthyroidism, and toxin ingestion.

Unfortunately, many cats with seizures never received a clear-cut diagnosis for the cause. 

Treating & Diagnosing Epilepsy in Cats

Diagnosing and treating epilepsy in cats is a multi-step process. The goal is to correctly identify the type of seizures and potential underlying cause, then manage the condition to reduce the frequency and severity of the seizures. 

The initial step is taking your pet’s history and reviewing the clinical signs. Your description of the seizure events, their frequency, duration, and any associated behaviors before or after the seizure can help distinguish between different types of epilepsy. 

Additionally, your vet will perform a physical and neurological examination to help identify any potential underlying causes or neurological issues that point to a specific type of epilepsy or another neurological condition. 

Diagnostic tests your vet may use include blood tests, urine analysis, MRI or CT scan, cerebrospinal fluid analysis, and electroencephalogram (EEG). The blood test is used to identify metabolic or systemic issues that might cause seizures, such as liver disease or electrolyte imbalances. Meanwhile, the urinalysis can help rule out systemic issues or detect potential toxins. 

MRI or CT scans can identify structural abnormalities in the brain, such as tumors, which might be causing the seizure. Although not commonly performed in cats, EEG can sometimes be used to evaluate the electrical activity in the brain and detect abnormalities. 

A cerebrospinal fluid analysis is a test that involves taking a sample of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord to check for signs of inflammation, infection, or other abnormalities. [1]

Whether or not your vet can narrow down the cause of your cat’s epilepsy, they’ll determine when to begin treatment. However, there has been some debate among veterinary neurologists about when is the appropriate time to start epilepsy medication in cats. For instance, some advise against starting after a single seizure, while others advocate for early treatment. [1]

Antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) like phenobarbital are commonly recommended as the initial drug of choice, although no comparative studies have been done to confirm its superiority over other prescription medication for cats . [1] Other options include levetiracetam, zonisamide, gabapentin, and pregabalin. [2] Keep in mind that these cat seizure medications are not a cure; they are designed to reduce the frequency and duration of seizures. 

Another treatment option is to treat the underlying cause if it can be identified. If the seizures result from a brain tumor, metabolic disturbance, or infection, treating that underlying issue can sometimes reduce or eliminate the seizures. 

Cluster and severe, prolonged seizures are medical emergencies and require immediate veterinary attention. Keep in mind that cats on antiepileptic medications will need regular check-ups to monitor drug levels in their blood, check for side effects, and adjust dosages as necessary. 

FAQs 

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

Witnessing your cat having a seizure can be distressing, but it’s essential to remain calm and ensure their safety. Move any objects away from the cat to prevent injury. Don’t try to restrain them or hold them down. Also, never put your hand in or near your cat’s mouth while they’re having a seizure. 

If your cat is on a hard surface like hardwood flooring, place a soft blanket down to make them more comfortable. 

If possible, make notes of the seizures, including affected body parts, when the seizures occurred, how often they occur, and how long they last. This information can be vital in helping your vet diagnose and treat them. [3] 

Once the seizure ends, your cat may be confused or disoriented. You can comfort them by speaking softly and keeping them in a safe, quiet place until they recover. 

Contact your vet as soon as possible after a seizure to make an appointment and have them examined, especially if this is their first episode. 

What are the signs of epilepsy in cats?

Signs of epilepsy in cats can vary but often include sudden episodes of confusion, staring, jerking movements of the limbs, facial twitching, and possible loss of consciousness. Some cats might salivate excessively, urinate, or defecate during a seizure. 

How long can cats live with epilepsy?

Cats diagnosed with epilepsy can live for many years with appropriate management and treatment. The prognosis for cats largely depends on the root cause of the epilepsy and effectiveness of the treatment. 

Treatment outcomes with epilepsy in cats medication, like phenobarbital or diazepam, show varied results, with some cats becoming seizure-free, others experiencing reduced frequency, and others being resistant to treatment.[1]

Cat getting blood drawn from hind leg at vet

Final Notes 

While the causes of epilepsy in cats can be challenging to pinpoint, cats with all types of epilepsy have one thing in common — recurrent seizures. Diagnosing the type and cause involves taking a thorough history, performing physical and neurological exams, and diagnostic testing. 

Regular check-ups and monitoring are crucial for cats with epilepsy, especially if they’re taking antiepileptic medications. Luckily, you can have unlimited follow-ups with Dutch. Our platform connects you to a licensed vet who can offer guidance, provide recommendations, and ensure you’re informed about your pet’s health options. You can also order your pet’s gabapentin prescription and many other medications and pet care products through our online pharmacy. Try Dutch today. 

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References

  1. Pakozdy, A, et al. “Epilepsy in Cats: Theory and Practice.” Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 17 Jan. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4857998/.

  2. International Cat Care, 7 Sept. 2018, icatcare.org/advice/seizures-epilepsy-in-cats/. 

  3. “Understanding Canine Epilepsy.” AKC Canine Health Foundation | Understanding Canine Epilepsy, www.akcchf.org/canine-health/top-health-concerns/epilepsy/understanding-canine-epilepsy.html.

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