By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 6 December 2011)
Feline seizures are caused by abnormal electrochemical activity in the brain. Although they usually last only a minute or two (or even just a few seconds), they can be quite scary. A cat may have a single seizure and then never suffer another episode, though in rare cases the cat will develop a chronic problem. Seizures are far less common in cats than dogs.
How to Recognize a Feline Seizure
Seizures are often preceded by unusual behaviours, such as circling, pacing, vomiting, restlessness, shaking, licking, salivation, hiding, whining, or yowling, though pre-seizure behaviour may be too subtle to notice in some cases. Indications of anxiety are common. Signs of an impending seizure (called the seizure aura) can last for seconds or days before a seizure, though a few minutes is the most common timeframe.
During a typical seizure with convulsions, the cat will collapse, his body will stiffen, and he will engage in uncontrolled muscle contractions. These contractions may include arching the back, jerking the entire body, clenching or snapping the jaws, paddling with the feet, or other movements. During the seizure, the cat may salivate or foam at the mouth and lose control of his bladder and bowels.
For a short time after a seizure with convulsions, the cat is likely to be disoriented, have difficulty moving his legs, be unresponsive, vomit, salivate, pace, wander, or engage in other atypical behaviours.
Not all seizures cause convulsions. Many cats that suffer from seizures have relatively minor indications of seizure activity, such as sudden, unprovoked mood changes or otherwise altered consciousness. In such cases, a cat may simply freeze for a couple of minutes, engage in bizarre, nonsensical behaviour (such as running in circles), or suffer a fit of hysteria or rage. Of course, cats that are not suffering from seizures also engage in many seemingly bizarre behaviours, so partial complex seizures are difficult to diagnose. What may differentiate these seizures from “normal” crazy feline behaviours in some cases are additional symptoms such as salivation or facial twitching.
Causes of Seizures in Cats
Seizures most often result from prior brain damage (a brain-damaged cat may have no symptoms other than seizures). However, in some cases, seizures occur for unknown reasons. In either case, the condition is known as epilepsy. Causes of seizures in cats include:
- Blood vessel disorder affecting circulation to the brain
- Brain tumour
- Congenital disorders such as hydrocephalus (water on the brain)
- Encephalitis (brain inflammation)
- Head injury
- Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar – can be caused by diabetes)
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Metabolic diseases
- Parasites (i.e., Cuterebra)
- Poisoning (ingestion of insecticides, antifreeze, rat poison, or other toxins)
- Taurine dietary deficiency (speculated by unproven)
- Vitamin B-1 (thiamin) deficiency
- Various additional infections and inflammatory diseases that impact the nervous system
How to Care for a Cat During a Seizure
During a seizure, it’s important to prevent your cat from hurting himself. This may require moving him to a safe place, away from anywhere he might fall (such as stairs) or moving furniture and sharp objects away from him (if you have to move your cat during the seizure, you can wrap him in a blanket or towel to avoid getting injured). If possible, place a pillow or folded towel beneath the cat’s head to reduce the likelihood of head trauma as he convulses. Other household pets, frightened by the convulsions, may attack an epileptic pet during a seizure, so the cat must be protected from other pets as well.
Observing the cat’s seizure to note the types of motion, body parts involved, breathing patterns, and duration can later help your veterinarian in making a diagnosis. Making note of post-seizure behaviour can also be helpful.
Keep in mind that your cat could accidentally bite or scratch you during a seizure, so you’ll need to be careful, especially around the mouth area. Drs. Carlson and Giffin (2008) assert that cats don’t swallow their tongues during seizures, so you shouldn’t put your hand or other objects in the cat’s mouth in an attempt to prevent this.
If the cat doesn’t come out of the seizure in under 5 minutes (or you suspect an immediately life-threatening cause such as poisoning), the situation should be treated as a medical emergency and veterinary care sought immediately. A veterinarian can inject medication such as diazepam or phenobarbital to stop the seizure.
When your cat comes out of the seizure, he may be confused and frightened, so keep in mind that there is a slight risk that he might attack if he fails to recognize you right away. He may also stumble about, bump into objects, or vocalize after the seizure. Stay by his side, petting him, talking in a soothing voice, and comforting him to help him stay calm and reorient himself.
While the cat is recovering, keep the room quiet and lighting off or dim. Offer him water if he needs it. The cat will probably be somewhat dazed and may stare off into space for a while. He will also be exhausted and likely need a lot of sleep following the episode.
Even if the seizure ends within a couple of minutes, the cat should be taken to a veterinarian for an evaluation and to treat any underlying illnesses or other problems.
If a cat has seizures regularly, there are medications that can be prescribed to control the problem, though they’re not always effective, and some cats suffer side effects. In the event that pharmaceutical intervention proves ineffective, some owners have had luck with alternative therapies such as acupuncture (performed by a veterinary acupuncturist). Don’t administer alternative therapies without first checking with a veterinarian.
Y ou can reduce the risk that your cat will suffer from seizures by keeping him indoors where he’ll be less likely to consume toxic substances, be infected with rabies or parasites, or sustain head injuries (indoor cats can be happy as long as they’re provided with an enriched environment). Keeping up to date with vaccinations, particularly for outdoor cats, is also a good idea, because it reduces the risk of infections that could trigger seizures.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for veterinary consultation and care.
- Carlson, D., DVM, & Giffin, J.M., MD. (2008). “Seizures in Cats: Causes and Treatments.”
WebMD.com, Excerpted from the Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook.
- Clemmons, R.M., DVM, PhD. (2002). “Seizure Disorder in Dogs and Cats.” Neuro.VetMed.UFL.edu.
- Hines, R., DVM, PhD. (2011). “Epilepsy in Your Pet: Seizures in Cats and Dogs.” 2ndChance.info.
- Lowekamp, B. (2005). “Feline Seizures and Epilepsy.” CS.CMUS.Edu.
- Osborne, C., DVM. (2000). “Cat Seizures, Cat Convulsions and Feline Epilepsy.” DrCarol.com.
- PetMD. (2011). “Seizures and Convulsions in Cats.” PetMD.com.
- Plotnick, A., MS, DVM, ACVIM, ABVP. (2006). “Seizures.” ManhattanCats.com.