Neurological Issues In Cats: Symptoms & Treatment

Key takeaway

There are many types of cat neurological disorders, which can affect behavior, coordination, and their ability to move around. Unfortunately, neurological disorders can't be prevented, but knowing the signs of the common issues can help you determine when to take your cat to the vet for diagnosis and treatment.

Neurological issues in cats can occur for various reasons, including genetics, age, and injury. Your cat's neurologic system comprises its brain and other components, similar to yours. When your cat suffers from a neurological disorder, they may experience seizures, confusion, or exhibit strange behaviors, which can be scary for pet parents. 

Some cat neurological disorders can be treated and managed with medication, while others require more invasive surgery. While it can be difficult or even frightening to see your cat start acting differently or having episodes, getting them treatment early can improve their quality of life. Knowing about the different types of common neurological issues in cats can help determine when to get your pet help and what to expect during the treatment process. 

What Is A Neurological Disorder?

To understand neurological disorders in cats, you must understand the cat's nervous system, which functions much like your own. Your cat's nervous system is made up of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and peripheral nervous system (the cranial nerves, spinal nerves, other accessory nerves, and muscles).1 The nervous system is how the brain and body communicate with one another through electrical signals, which are transported through the peripheral nervous system to the spinal cord and brain.1 The brain interprets the electrical signals and sends instructions back through the peripheral nervous system.

In a healthy cat, the nervous system communicates correctly, with some functions occurring voluntarily and involuntarily. For example, functions that control the heart, lungs, and digestive tract muscles occur involuntarily and are regulated by the autonomic nervous system, a component of the peripheral nervous system.1 

The brain acts as the coordinator of these activities and functions, ultimately controlling the nervous system. Neurological disorders in cats occur when there's a disruption that prevents the electrical signals from effectively communicating, or the brain's instructions are passed incorrectly through the peripheral nervous system.1 Neurological disorders in cats affect the brain and the nerves throughout the body, including the spinal cord, cranial and peripheral nerves, autonomic nervous system, and muscles. 

Signs of neurological issues in cats

Signs of cat neurological issues include:

  • Seizures
  • Difficulty walking and incoordination
  • Weakness
  • Paralysis
  • Tremors
  • Head tilt
  • Rapid eye movements
  • Confusion 

Types Of Cat Neurological Disorders

Nerve, muscle, and brain issues can affect the entire body, including major bodily functions like mobility, eating, urinating, and more. Neurological problems in cats are caused by many factors, including infectious diseases, viral infections, fatal conditions, and birth defects. 1 Here are just a few of the most common types of cat neurological issues. 

Vestibular Syndrome

Vestibular syndrome can cause cats to have difficulty maintaining balance or moving on all four legs because it affects the nerves that control the vestibular system.2 The vestibular system is located within the inner ear and consists of fluid-filled canals with nerve cells and receptors and the medulla, the lower area of the brain on top of the spinal cord.2 The receptors in the ear canals respond to changes in movement based on the shifting fluid and send signals to the brain to enable movement and balance. 

Vestibular syndrome can cause vertigo in cats, resulting in the cat's movements becoming uncoordinated, which may include visible symptoms such as circling or falling to one side, a head tilt, and involuntary eye movements. However, some cats may also experience facial drooping if they have an ear tumor or disease in the inner or middle ear.2

There are many potential causes of vestibular disease, including bacterial infections, inflammatory diseases, drug reactions, and growths like tumors and cysts. Unfortunately, the cause of most cases of vestibular disease is unknown. When the cause of vestibular syndrome cannot be determined, it's referred to as idiopathic vestibular syndrome.1 

If a healthy cat suddenly begins displaying odd behavior, like having difficulty moving around, maintaining balance, or having a tilted head, it could indicate vestibular disease. Unfortunately, there are no tests designed to directly diagnose vestibular disease. Instead, vets may diagnose the illness based on clinical signs, MRIs, X-rays, blood tests, urine tests, and ear cultures.2 

Treatment of vestibular disease in cats depends on the cause. For example, if the condition occurs due to a tumor, the primary issue of the tumor must be treated, and associated symptoms may subside. Unfortunately, when there is no primary cause of the disease, there's no treatment available, so cats should be kept in a safe space where they can't injure themselves, and in some cases, they may require supportive care.2 Luckily, cats with idiopathic vestibular syndrome typically experience a reduction in their symptoms quickly and can go on to lead healthy lives. 

Neoplastic Disease

Neoplastic disease is one of the most common types of neurological issues in cats. Meningioma, a type of tumor that develops in the meninges, a thin protective tissue in the cat's brain, is a type of neoplastic disease that can cause seizures, visual issues, and uncoordinated movements.3

Neoplastic disease most commonly affects older cats and is usually benign, so it doesn't spread to other parts of the body. Luckily, meningioma can be surgically removed, and cats with successful surgeries go on to live healthy lives without additional follow-ups.1 Unfortunately, not all brain tumors are as treatable, depending on their location. Other types of treatments include radiation therapy, fluid therapy, dietary changes, and medications.3

Epilepsy

Epilepsy in cats is defined as seizures or convulsions due to issues with the transmission of electrical signals,1 which cause surges of electrical activity in the brain. Epilepsy can be caused by many factors, including head injuries, metabolic irregularities, and tumors—however, in many cases, the cause is unknown, in which it's called idiopathic epilepsy.1

Since many diseases can cause epilepsy in cats, vets may perform diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause. These tests may include blood and urine samples, X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans. Cat treatment for epilepsy depends on the cause. For example, if a cat's seizures are due to a tumor, the vet will aim to surgically remove the tumor,  likely treating the secondary epilepsy. 

If the cause of epilepsy cannot be determined, the cat will still receive some form of treatment since seizures can cause brain damage and other complications. Epilepsy without a known cause is treated with anticonvulsant medication to prevent more seizures that can cause further brain damage. Unfortunately, there isn’t an ideal dosage for this medication; your vet will likely need to adjust the dose, frequency, and drugs throughout treatment to determine what works best. 

Types of feline neurological disorders

Congenital Disorders

If your young cat is experiencing loss of coordination, seizures, tremors, or starts staring into space, it could indicate a congenital disorder. Congenital disorders are defects cats are born with and may be inherited from the parents or caused by environmental factors like nutritional deficiencies or viral infections while they were in the womb.4 There are many types of congenital disorders of the nervous system, including:

  • Hydranencephaly: A disorder which is characterized by a kitten being born without a cerebrum and has a mostly empty skull, hydranencephaly typically affects kittens exposed to feline panleukopenia, also known as parvovirus, in the womb.4
  • Hydrocephalus: A disorder in which there's excess fluid that puts pressure on the brain and can cause cerebrum damage. This disorder may be relieved through surgery that drains the fluid.1 
  • Hepatic Encephalopathy: A type of neurological syndrome with symptoms like excessive drooling, staring into space, blindness, and jerking movements.4 This disorder is caused by liver disease, which occurs due to a birth defect. 
  • Cerebellar Hypoplasia: A disorder in which the cerebellum, the small portion of the brain located at the back of the head, does not develop completely. It is typically caused by exposure to parvovirus in the womb and can cause tremors.4
  •  Congenital Vestibular disease: A brain stem disorder, congenital vestibular disease is most common in Burmese cats and causes loss of coordination.4

Of course, these are only a few of the most common types of nervous system congenital disorders in cats. If you believe your kitten or cat has a congenital disorder, they should be taken to the vet as soon as possible for diagnosis and treatment to prevent injury to themselves and improve their quality of life. 

Infectious Disease

Infectious diseases like feline infectious peritonitis virus (FIP) can cause neurological damage, and unfortunately, there's no successful treatment for it.1  In addition, cats can experience bacterial infections in their ears that can cause inner ear infections, in which case the primary infection must be treated first. 

FIP is a variant of the feline coronavirus, and up to 95% of cats with FIP die without treatment.5 Cats can develop this disease at any age. Cats with FIP may experience a range of symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Lack of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Incoordination 
  • Seizures
  • Dementia6

FIP is difficult to diagnose because it can occur with other diseases, but vets may perform blood analysis or x-rays to look for fluid in the chest or abdomen. Unfortunately, FIP is largely untreatable, but antiviral drugs are becoming popular for the treatment of some forms of the disease. In most cases, cats with FIP will be prescribed medication to manage the disease with appropriate supportive care based on the cat's symptoms.7 

Trauma

Trauma-caused neurological issues can occur when there's head or spinal cord injury.1 This is most commonly caused by severe injuries due to car accidents, but trauma can occur for many reasons. Spinal cord injuries can cause paralysis, resulting in uncoordinated movement and weakness in the limbs.8 However, the more severe the case, the more severe the symptoms. In cases of severe spinal cord injury, cats can experience a total loss of movement, but not all spinal cord trauma causes paralysis; some can cause incontinence.1 

When cats suffer from a brain injury, they may also experience neurological issues, depending on the part of the brain that was affected. For example, brain stem injuries can cause weakness, loss of balance, and stupor.8 Meanwhile, trauma to the cerebellum can cause blindness, seizures, stupor, circling, and confusion.8

In addition, injuries to the nervous system can cause incoordination and weakness.1 For example, if a cat is hit by a car and survives, they may lose feeling in their tail or legs due to nerve damage. 

Dementia

Cat dementia is an age-related neurologic problem that impacts how the brain and body communicate.1 This neurological condition affects cats differently but is most commonly associated with symptoms like disorientation. 

Cats with dementia may also experience confusion and get lost and wander away from home.  They may also begin urinating outside of the litter box. Unfortunately, there is no cure for dementia in cats, but it can be treated and managed by providing them with a comfortable environment. 

How cats get neurological disorders

How Do Cats Get Neurological Disorders?

There is no single cause of neurological disorders in cats because there are various types, all of which have different causes. A few factors that can cause neurological disorders in cats include:

  • Infection: Bacterial, fungal, viral, and parasitic infections can cause neurological problems in cats. FIP can cause inflammation throughout the body, including the central nervous system, affecting the brain's ability to communicate effectively with the rest of the body.  
  • Trauma: Trauma, such as brain injuries or car accidents, can cause neurological issues and paralysis in cats, resulting in uncoordinated movements and weakness. 
  • Birth Defects: Many types of birth defects can cause neurological disorders in cats, resulting in different symptoms. Treatment for these birth defects depends on the type of defect and the part of the brain it affects. 
  • Old Age: Old age can cause dementia in cats, resulting in neurological issues, including loss of coordination, confusion, and other strange behaviors. 
  • Tumors: Brain tumors can cause neurological disorders because they press on the brain, resulting in seizures, uncoordinated movements, and behavioral changes. Of course, the neurological impacts of a brain tumor largely depend on where the tumor is located within the brain. 

How Are Neurological Issues Treated?

Treatment for cats with neurological disorders depends on the type of disorder. First, your vet will need to diagnose the underlying cause of the neurological dysfunction. In some cases, it might be easy to determine. For example, cats who have had recent trauma may experience neurological issues as a result. Meanwhile, other causes aren't so easily identified. 

Vets will perform an evaluation on cats, so it's helpful to tell them everything you can about your cat's symptoms, including what they are and when they first started. Your vet will ask you about your cat's medical history and perform a physical evaluation. They'll also do lab work and other types of testing, such as x-rays and MRIs, to determine the type of disorder your cat is suffering from before developing a treatment plan. 

Once your vet identifies the cause of your cat's neurological issues, they can begin treatment. As we've already mentioned, treatment depends on the diagnosis. For example, brain tumors are typically treated by surgical removal, while epilepsy is managed with medication to prevent further brain damage. 

Unfortunately, depending on your cat's diagnosis, there may be no cure for their neurological issues. Instead, vets may offer supportive care and medication to help manage the issues and improve your cat's quality of life.

The prognosis for cats with neurological disorders depends on the cause and treatment methods, although the right treatment can improve their quality of life. The prognosis for some neurological disorders in cats is better than others. For example, cats with brain tumors may live long, healthy lives after surgical removal, but cases of FIP are typically fatal. 

Of course, the earlier you detect signs of neurological issues in cats, the better the prognosis. Early treatment is key to improving your cat's quality of life, especially if they're suffering from a potentially fatal disease or are experiencing distress or pain. 

Can Neurological Issues Be Prevented?

Unfortunately, most neurological disorders aren't preventable. Still, taking good care of your cat by getting them quality, consistent care can ensure they get the treatment they need as soon as possible. In addition, early diagnosis can improve your cat's prognosis. Therefore, you should take your cat to the vet every year for a physical examination to ensure they're healthy. At these visits, you can discuss any changes in your cat's health or behavior with your vet. 

In addition, you should always consult a vet when you feel there's a potential threat to your pet's health and wellness. For example, if your otherwise healthy cat starts acting differently, becoming confused, or is suffering from incoordination or weakness, it could indicate a serious neurological issue. Don't wait to take your cat to the vet if you believe they have a serious health condition affecting their daily lives. 

FAQs

How do I know if my cat has a neurological issue?

It's not always possible to detect a neurological issue in cats with the naked eye because some issues affect cats differently. However, common signs of neurological issues in cats include:

  • Seizures: Cats can experience seizures at any age, resulting in twitching and involuntary movements. Cats that experience seizures often may have epilepsy, one of many neurological issues in cats. 
  • Difficulty Walking: Cats may experience incoordination or difficulty walking because their brain is unable to communicate effectively with the rest of their body. 
  • Paralysis: Paralysis is most common in cats who have experienced physical trauma, but it can also occur due to a variety of illnesses, including neurological disorders. If your cat can't move any parts of their body, it may indicate paralysis. 
  • Head Tilt: Heat tilt is a common symptom of vestibular disease, which can cause your cat to feel unbalanced due to fluid in the inner ear. 
  • Confusion: Cats with dementia typically become confused or stare into space, but confusion can also occur due to other neurological issues. 

What causes sudden neurological issues in cats?

There are many causes of neurological issues in cats, and some disorders may appear suddenly. Trauma is a common cause of sudden neurological issues because it can affect any part of the central nervous system, including the nerves, causing paralysis. Tumors may also cause sudden neurological issues because they put pressure on the brain, affecting its ability to communicate effectively with the rest of the nervous system. Even though tumors take time to grow, you may not notice any changes in your cat's behavior until the tumor begins pressing on the brain. 

Can cats get neurological damage?

Cats can get neurological damage from a number of factors, including everything from trauma to congenital disorders. Even some infections can cause neurological disorders by spreading to the brain. Another common cause of neurological damage in cats is epilepsy, which destroys brain cells with each seizure. However, cats can get neurological damage in several ways, including old age and tumors that press on the brain. Ultimately, anything that can damage the brain or nervous system can cause neurological damage. 

Cat paw on top of owner’s hand

Final Notes

There are many causes of neurological issues in cats, including infection, birth defects, trauma, and dementia. Although you can't prevent these issues from occurring, you can still take steps to ensure your cat's health. If your cat is diagnosed with a neurological disorder, your vet will provide you with care instructions, which may include certain medications. However, the treatment of neurological issues in cats is determined by the cause. Some are treatable, while others will require supportive care. 

Whether you're worried your cat has a neurological issue, or you're managing their disorder at home, you need a vet you can trust. Dutch-affiliated vets can help by answering your questions and working with your vet to ensure your cat gets the proper care they need while being treated for a neurological issue. Our online vet care gives you easy access to a professional who can answer your questions about how to manage your cat's condition from the comfort of your own home. 

References

  1. “Neurological Disorders.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 22 May 2018, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/neurological-disorders.

  2. “Vestibular Syndrome.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 22 May 2018, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/vestibular-syndrome.

  3. “Tumor of the Meninges in Cats.” PetMD, https://www.petmd.com/cat/conditions/cancer/c_ct_meningioma.

  4. Packer, Rebecca A. “Congenital and Inherited Disorders of the Nervous System in Cats - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, 18 Aug. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/brain,-spinal-cord,-and-nerve-disorders-of-cats/congenital-and-inherited-disorders-of-the-nervous-system-in-cats.

  5. Quinton, Amy M. “UC Davis Launches Clinical Trials to Treat a Deadly Coronavirus Disease in Cats.” UC Davis, 23 Aug. 2022, https://www.ucdavis.edu/health/news/coronavirus-disease-cats.

  6. Neurological and Ocular FIP - UC Davis. https://ccah.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/sites/g/files/dgvnsk4586/files/inline-files/Neurological%20and%20ocular%20FIP%20v3_0.pdf.

  7. “Feline Infectious Peritonitis.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 21 Dec. 2021, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feline-infectious-peritonitis.

  8. Schubert, Thomas. “Nervous System Disorders and Effects of Injuries in Cats - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, 18 Aug. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/brain,-spinal-cord,-and-nerve-disorders-of-cats/nervous-system-disorders-and-effects-of-injuries-in-cats.