Seizures in Cats
Written by Small Door's medical experts
One-time occurrences of a seizure in your cat may be caused by 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. While it can be alarming to witness, it is vital that owners remain calm during a seizure and contact their veterinarian or local veterinary emergency hospital immediately.
In This Article
Seizures in cats are characterized by sudden surges of uncontrollable muscle activity, often described as fits or convulsions. They can last for as little as a few seconds or up to a few minutes, with some even lasting for hours. They’re caused by a temporary disturbance of the brain’s normal functions.
Epilepsy in cats is when a cat has repeated episodes of seizures. Epilepsy-related seizures may occur at regular or irregular intervals, varying from days to months or even years.
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
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
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.
There are numerous conditions that can lead to seizures in cats, including:
Poisoning from toxins
Trauma to the head
Brain infection or inflammation
Liver or kidney problems
Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
Electrolyte imbalances, such as low calcium or low sodium
Thiamine deficiency in the diet
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). Toxin exposure is one of the most common causes of seizures in cats, and is often caused by a chemical called pyrethrin, found in dog flea and tick medication, sprays and shampoo. Be careful not to let your cat groom your dog after applying flea and tick products.
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 or 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, bileacid 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.
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, you should 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.
In many cases, the first month or two of a cat being on anticonvulsant medication can appear to be unsuccessful. During this initial period, the timing and dosage of the medication may need to be adjusted. If your cat's seizures continue, contact your veterinarian. They will take a blood sample to measure the amount of medication circulating in the blood, and can then correct the dosage as needed. Additional possible causes for anticonvulsant medication not working are high levels of stress or the worsening of the disease.
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.
Seizures are not contagious.
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.
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 not 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.
There is no vaccine that can prevent seizures. However, keeping your cat up-to-date on their regular vaccinations will prevent some of the infectious diseases that can cause seizures.
Seizures are caused by a temporary disturbance of the brain’s normal functions, and result in sudden surges of uncontrollable muscle activity, known as fits or convulsions. They may last a few seconds or minutes, or can last several hours. While some seizures may have no adverse outcome, it’s important to consult a veterinarian regardless, as they can indicate an underlying condition that requires treatment.