Why is My Cat Having Seizures?

If you witness a cat having a seizure for the first time, it is one of the scariest sights we can imagine in our pets. While seizures can be of varying degrees of acuteness, they are all worrying. The distress we feel when we see our cat having a seizure is second only to the anguish our cats will be going through, ignorant as they are about why this is happening to them. Finding out the reason behind our cat's seizures is vital for a veterinarian to treat them. Unfortunately, diagnosing cat seizures is a difficult process. Knowing as much as possible is the best way to help ease it.

Why is my cat having seizures? We look into the types of cat seizures, their causes and what treatment options are available. We also help you to manage a seizure-prone cat when treatment is limited.

What are seizures in cats?

When we reference seizures, it is common to use the term epilepsy interchangeably. Epileptic seizures refer to a broad group of seizures which have various causes. However, not all seizures fall under this general heading. On the other hand, they do all share certain characteristics.

A seizure is a series of uncontrolled repetitive movements produced by an alteration of normal brain activity. A simple way to explain the process is to look at how neurons are effected. Neurons are nerve cells which are a vital part of the nervous system. They send signals from the brain to other parts of the body via electrical impulses. When they don't work at all, they can lead to conditions such as paralysis. During a seizure, neurons receive greater stimulation than they can handle, causing them to send aberrant signals to the rest of the brain.

When the brain sends out such abnormal signals, it responds with the obvious signs of a seizure in cats (see below). The danger lies not only in the violence of the seizure itself, but with the potential brain damage which can result. If the brain does not work, it can send the wrong signals to the rest of the body and result in organ failure. For this reason, early detection is vital.

Seizures are one of the most common neurological problems recognized in catsFortunately, seizures are still a relatively rare occurrence, affecting 1-3% of the feline population. They usually present as the symptom of another pathology. Epilepsy is a condition of its own, although it also covers a range of neurological disorders. A seizure is one of the symptoms of epilepsy, but is also a symptom of other problems.

Causes of seizures in cats

As we state above, while epilepsy is a common cause of feline seizures, it is not the only one. Seizures can be classed into two main categories: provoked and unprovoked. While this may imply the cat is in someway at fault, this is not the case.

  • Provoked seizure: this is when a short term condition leads to a seizure. This could be something as simple as lacking food to keep up blood sugar or may be the result of an infection, fever, concussion or similar.
  • Unprovoked seizure: this is when the seizure is caused by stress, sleep deprivation or an underlying brain condition. Epilepsy is one such disease and at least 2 unprovoked seizures at least 24 hours apart are required for a diagnosis.

This means that seizures which occur in isolation may not be related to epilepsy and are likely provoked or circumstantial. If a diagnosis of epilepsy is given after only one seizure, it is possible it could lead to overtreatment and potential harm. To distinguish between the two, non-epileptic seizures are often called convulsions.

Here we list some of the other causes of epilepsy in cats which may be the root cause of a cat seizure:

  • Infectious diseases: infections can cause neurological problems, with toxoplasmosis, encephalitis, meningitis, peritonitis and others being some of the most affecting.
  • Congenital conditions: genetically inherited problems can also have neurological repercussions such as seizures. Hydrocephalus is one of the most well-known.
  • Trauma: blunt force trauma to head can lead to seizures. This can occur when the cat is hit by a car, falls from height or anything which can damage the brain.
  • Cerebrovascular disease: brain diseases which are caused by problems with blood vessels, strokes in cats being one of the most acute.
  • Poisoning: if the cat ingests something which is toxic to them, convulsions may occur as a result. This indicates severe poisoning and will be considered a veterinary emergency.
  • Brain tumors: the pressure the neoplasm puts on the brain can result in convulsions from overstimulated neurons.
  • Thiamine deficiency: otherwise known as vitamin B1, thiamine is necessary for a cat to have normal brain function.
  • Fever: convulsions can be a side effect.
  • Diabetes: it is possible for a cat to go into a diabetic seizure if their blood sugar levels are not correct.
  • Side effect of medication: certain drugs and other medications may have seizures as a risk, with overdose making this even more problematic.
  • Feline leukemia: again, seizures are one potential symptom of this overall condition.
  • Parsitical infestation: parasites which travel to the brain can affect neurological activity and lead to seizures.
  • Feline immunodeficiency: also known as feline AIDS.

What does a cat seizure look like?

With an epileptic seizure in cats, there is a clear onset of the seizure. The nature of the seizure is transient, often being severe at the beginning and then petering out towards the end. It can be difficult to know when the epileptic seizure is complete, but they should return to normal.

While seizures in cats may be provoked or unprovoked, they are also divided into focal or generalized seizures:

  •  Focal seizures: usually preceded by a sense of disorientation and its effects are not as strong as generalized seizures. May have other symptoms such as biting, licking or excessive swallowing.
  • Generalized seizures: a focal seizure can develop a more serious generalized seizure which has more acute symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of seizures in cats include:

  • Uncontrolled leg movement
  • Dilated pupils
  • Hypersalivation
  • Body rigidity
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Uncontrolled chewing
  • Cat falling over
  • Incontinence
  • Facial twitching
  • Lip smacking
  • Staring off into space

The convulsions can last from 2 to 3 minutes. Before it occurs, the cat may feel the onset and variably try to attract attention or hide. Theses types of episodes are easy to register, but some focal seizures may not be. We also may not be present when a seizure occurs in the cat, so it is not always easy to tell when their first seizure occurs. The cat may lose consciousness, but only temporarily. If a loss of consciousness continues, it is possible they have irrevocably damaged their brain.

What to do if a cat has a seizure

When our cat has a seizure, it is easy to panic. The effects of the convulsions and neurological activity can look very dramatic. However, as we state above, focal seizure symptoms are often not as obvious as generalized seizure symptoms in cats. It is important you know what to do when a cat has a seizure so that you do not make the situation any worse:

  • Keep calm: do not shout, make loud noises or even try to talk to the cat. This type of stimuli will only put further pressure on their nervous system and can exacerbate the problem.
  • Remove objects: while it is impossible to guess where and when a seizure will occur, you should try to ensure there are no objects in the cat's way which can cause them further damage. If you already know your cat is prone to seizures, then you will need to limit the possible damage as much as possible. With a cat falling over, there can be serious harm to their body, so we need to ensure they are not at height.
  • Eliminate sound: turn down TV, music or anything which may exacerbate the problem.
  • Don't touch them: don't try to touch the cat, even to reassure them. Restraining the cat can lead to very serious problems, including broken limbs.
  • Don't medicate: don't try to give the cat anything to stop the seizure or even give them anything after the seizure has finished. If there is a treatment necessary, the veterinarian will prescribe it after diagnosis.
  • Video: if this is the first time you have witnessed the cat having a seizure, film it on your phone or similar device. This will help the veterinarian to diagnose the problem once you take them to the clinic.
  • Veterinarian: once the attack is over, ensure they are comfortable, reassure them and take them to a veterinarian.

Diagnosis of cat seizures

In order for the diagnosis of seizures in cats, it is important you provide as much information as possible to the veterinarian. If you have been unable to film the incident, you will need to remember as many of the symptoms as possible, so write them down as soon as you can. The diagnosis is there to see if it is an epileptic seizure or a non-epileptic convulsion. You should remember the context to help them determine whether it was provoked or unprovoked, e.g. whether they had not eaten for a long time.

  • Complete clinical history: information on any and all medical conditions the cat has had throughout their lifetime. Also provide information if they have had any accidents or strange behavior occurring around the time of the incident.
  • General physical exam: to see if there were any injuries sustained during the seizure and whether they can see any symptoms of an underlying condition.
  • Diagnostic tests: these may include any combination of electroencephalograms, electrocardiograms, x-rays and magnetic resonances. Also blood tests and urinalysis are likely.

Not every case will require all of these medical tests, but it is best to be safe. As we said, there may be various reasons behind the convulsions.

Treatment of seizures in cats

Treatment of feline seizures is dependent on the underlying cause. Some causes are medical conditions without a specific cure. Seizure management is required in these occasions, focusing on reducing their frequency and intensity. Any treatment needs to be prescribed by a veterinarian.

Both prevention and treatment are used for cats suffering recurring seizures. Phenobarbital is usually used to prevent seizures. It is unlikely to completely stop them altogether, but it is possible phenobarbital can seriously reduce occurrences of cat seizures. Diazepam may be used to control them when they occur, although this is not to be given during an active fit. Neither of these drugs can be used in cats with liver problems.

Usually, medications will be administered for life. An early diagnosis is essential as early administration of treatment can significantly improve the cat's condition and prevent permanent brain damage. The longer you wait to consult a specialist, the worse the prognosis is likely to be. It is particularly important to take the cat to a veterinarian if they are in any way vulnerable.

Kittens and older cats need particular care. A kitten which is no diagnosed in time can have their development serious impaired. The risk of death in a cat suffering seizures increases 12% for every year after the first onset of a fit. Senior cats have a greater risk of death, simply because they are older. They are also more likely to develop seizures thanks to the deterioration of brain cells over time.

It is also best to not let a cat with seizures from leaving the home. Having a fit or attack outside can make them very vulnerable to various dangers. For example, if a cat suffers a seizure beside a road, it could make them go into oncoming traffic.

We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

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