Seizures are characterized by sudden surges of uncontrollable muscle activity, often described as fits or convulsions. They are caused by a temporary disturbance of the brain’s normal functions.
Seizures can last for as little as a few seconds or up to a few minutes, with some even lasting for hours. One-time occurrences may be related to issues such as a metabolic disturbance, head trauma, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), severe fever, or toxin ingestion, while repeated seizures can be an indication of epilepsy or other serious illnesses.
Epilepsy-related seizures may occur at regular or irregular intervals, varying from days to months or even years.
Signs and Symptoms of Seizures in Cats
Symptoms of seizures in cats may not be as harmful as they appear. Nonetheless, they still require immediate attention by a veterinarian to ensure that the seizure is not due to an underlying medical condition that could be life-threatening.
Seizures in cats can be broken into two categories: focal and generalized.
- Focal seizure: Cats commonly exhibit this type of seizure, which originate in a small, concentrated area within the cerebral cortex. Focal seizures are sometimes referred to as partial seizures, since they are isolated to specific parts of the body. Symptoms include:
- Loud cry, as if the cat is in pain
- Aggressive behavior
- Excessive drooling
- Potential loss of leg function
- Strange behavior, as if chewing imaginary gum
- Staring off into space
- Unable to get up without assistance
- Generalized seizure: The entire body is affected. Generalized seizures can be broken down further into two types: grand mal and petit mal.
Grand mal seizures are more common and recognizable, and usually last fewer than five minutes. Signs and symptoms include:
- Uncontrollable muscle activity such as kicking of the legs, as if swimming
- Falling to one side
- Loss of bowel and/or bladder control
- Being unaware of their surroundings, those around them, or their own actions
Some root causes of grand mal seizures may be:
- Head trauma
- Lead poisoning
- Liver or kidney problems
- Low blood sugar
- Calcium imbalance
- Brain infection, inflammation, or tumor
Petit mal seizures are less dramatic and may be so subtle that you don’t realize one has occurred. They do not cause convulsions, but can result in the cat suddenly collapsing. Other possible signs include:
- Staring off into space
- An air of confusion
- Strange behavior, as if chewing imaginary gum or swatting at invisible flies
There are three stages associated with seizures:
- Pre-seizure phase: Also known as the “aura,” cats may appear uneasy or restless; salivate; or seek attention and affection right before the seizure begins. Conversely, they may also do the opposite, and suddenly hide. Some cats appear completely normal prior to a seizure, with no identifiable aura.
- Ictus: The actual seizure, which can last for seconds, minutes, or even longer.
- Postictal: Recovery from the seizure. This stage can last several minutes to a few days, although most cats seem to recover within a few hours.
Epilepsy is a disorder characterized by recurring seizures, but not all cats who experience repeated seizures are considered epileptic. Epileptic seizures are more common in dogs than in cats, and occur in less than 3% of the pet population.
Seizures can be partial (affecting one part of the body) or generalized (affecting the whole body). Within generalized seizures, there are two different types: petit mal and grand mal, with the latter being more frequent and recognizable in cats.
How Did My Cat Get Seizures?
There are numerous conditions that can lead to seizures in cats. Most originate in the brain itself, with possible causes including:
- Brain tumors
- Infectious diseases such as feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), toxoplasmosis, feline leukemia (FeLV), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), and cryptococcosis
- Congenital disorders
- Trauma to the head
- Immune-mediated diseases, such as immune-mediated encephalitis
The most important clinical factor in any cat with seizures is whether the seizures are intracranial (located within the brain) or extracranial (located outside the brain).
Intracranial causes can be further distinguished between those seizures causing structural changes to the brain (e.g., brain tumor) and those with no abnormalities on investigation (so-called functional abnormalities, e.g., idiopathic epilepsy). Epilepsy, a brain disorder, causes sudden, uncontrolled activity. When these seizures occur for reasons unknown, they’re deemed “idiopathic epilepsy.” There is no specific test for epilepsy, so it is diagnosed by ruling out all other possible causes. (You may hear your vet refer to epilepsy as a “diagnosis of exclusion.”)
Extracranial causes of seizures may originate outside the body (e.g., toxic disorders) or within the body (e.g., metabolic disorders). Conditions that originate elsewhere in the body can affect the brain, thereby causing a seizure. Some of the most common conditions are:
- Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
- Advanced liver disease
- Electrolyte imbalances, such as low calcium or low sodium
- Poisoning from toxins
- Thiamine deficiency in the diet
Seizures in cats can be the result of changes in the brain that make it function abnormally. These changes can be caused by brain diseases or injury to the brain itself, or by problems that originate in other parts of the body but affect the brain adversely.
Diagnosing Seizures in Cats
Seizures in cats are diagnosed by a veterinarian using various tests along with the owner’s account of what happened. If possible, try to record the length of your cat’s seizure. Recording the seizure on your phone is also very helpful, although it can be difficult to have the presence of mind to do this. Knowing how long it lasted and what signs your cat exhibited prior to and during the seizure is important. Additional medical history/information you may be asked include:
- Has your cat been exposed to toxins?
- Any recent trauma?
- Any other signs of illness?
- Has the cat been outside in the last few weeks?
- Do the seizures occur in a pattern related to certain activities like sleep, exercise, or eating?
- Any behavioral changes?
Additional testing may include:
- Physical and neurological examination
- Laboratory tests and radiographs
- Additional non-invasive tests such as blood lead measurement, bile acid analysis, serology, or PCR testing for infectious disease
- MRI of the brain
- Collection of CSF, or cerebral spinal fluid (otherwise known as a “spinal tap”)
When a cause cannot be determined, your vet may deem the seizure as idiopathic or primary epilepsy.
Diagnosis can rely heavily on information you provide, along with direct observation of the seizure (if possible). Diagnostic testing such as blood and urine tests, x-rays, and MRI imaging may be used to try to determine the cause. Absent other diagnoses, it may be determined that your cat suffers from epilepsy.
Treating Your Cat for Seizures
Seizures in cats are treated with medication to manage frequency and severity. Treatment usually doesn’t begin until the cat has had multiple and/or severe seizures. If the cause is unknown, treatment should still be administered, because each seizure can potentially lead to further brain damage and complications.
On the positive side, a short, single seizure may not require treatment.
If a toxin is the culprit, it must be removed from the body. For instance, if a topical flea medication triggered a negative reaction, bathe the cat to remove whatever traces of the medication are left on the body.
In addition to managing the seizures directly, if there are underlying contributing causes, those must be addressed and treated as well.
When it comes to medication, your vet may need to try out a few different types to find the one that works best for your particular cat.
Is There a Cure for Seizures?
It depends on the underlying cause.
For example, if the seizure is due to an infection or low blood sugar, treating the primary condition should also eliminate the seizures. Conversely, there is not currently a cure for epilepsy in cats. However, with the help of appropriate medications, epilepsy in cats can be very well managed. The goal is to reduce the frequency, duration, and severity of the seizures.
But be aware that, even with treatment, it may not be possible to completely prevent the seizures from recurring.
Are Seizures Contagious for Humans or Other Pets?
Seizures are not contagious.
What Is the Cost for Treating Seizures?
The cost to treat seizures in cats depends on a variety of factors. You need to factor in expenses like office visits and follow-up care, testing, and medications (possibly long-term), along with your geographic location. Larger cities tend to have a higher cost of living, which extends to medical care for animals.
Seizures may or may not be curable, depending on the underlying cause. Idiopathic epilepsy can usually be well controlled with medications, with some cats not even requiring medication if their seizures are infrequent or of a short duration.
Recovery and Management of Seizures
If a cat’s seizure lasts no longer than 3–5 minutes and the cat recovers immediately, there is usually no cause for panic. However, you should still call your veterinarian immediately, particularly if it’s the first time your cat has had a seizure, or if your cat is very young (less than 12 months of age).
Veterinary care must be sought immediately if a seizure lasts for more than 5 minutes or if multiple seizures of any duration occur within a short period of time (the latter is referred to as “cluster seizures”).
Management of seizures includes:
- Knowing how to identify the symptoms
- Feeding a well-balanced diet
- Recording pertinent information when a seizure occurs
- Regular vet checkups and blood tests to ensure medication is not causing additional health issues
The best way to manage your cat’s seizures is to stay on top of their overall health and wellness and familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms. In the event of a seizure, write down start and stop times and any additional information regarding the episode for your vet.
Preventing seizures in cats is always possible. In some situations, long-term anticonvulsant medication may be necessary for the duration of the cat’s life, with the dose adjusted over time.
Is There a Vaccine for Seizures?
There is no vaccine that can prevent seizures. However, keeping your cat up-to-date on her regular vaccinations will prevent some of the infectious diseases that can cause seizures.
Preventing a seizure from happening may not be possible, but management is possible through medication and proper health care.