What can cause cats to have seizures

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gray cat at vet
Gray Cat At Vet

Cat seizures can happen without warning. On September 9, 2010, Linda Woodward's cat Denali suddenly writhed, twisted, fell, and rolled on the floor. He began madly biting his rear toes. He was eerily silent but conscious and seemed in some faraway world of his own. About two minutes later, he stood up and appeared fine, though soaked in urine, and he wanted to eat.

The day before, she'd seen Denali fall from his perch on a table. A chair crashed over on him, and her two dogs piled on top. As a longtime Ragdoll breeder, she'd had cats fall before, and in 45 years they'd always recovered. But Denali was different.

Cat Seizures

For the next five days, Denali silently seized, repeating that same eerie pattern of writhing, peeing, and biting his rear toes for 30 to 50 seconds. After two or three minutes he seemed recovered and headed for the food bowl.

orange tabby cat lying on bed
orange tabby cat lying on bed

Linda tried to keep him clean. Just touching his spine during a bath triggered a seizure. She guessed he'd hurt his back in the fall and hoped spinal injuries could regenerate with treatment.

Denali's best cat-friends started to avoid him. They refused to groom or sleep with him. He smelled bad. His seizures scared them. Denali began to hide, too.

Medical Attention

At the urging of family members, Linda sought medical attention. All of Denali's tests came back normal. But she received confusing, frightening diagnoses that blamed the behavior on everything from fleas to feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). She refused pain medication for him. She knew seizures aren't painful and requested anti-seizure medication. But the drugs didn't help. He continued to seize—30 seizures in 22 days.

two black and tuxedo cat lying beside window
two black and tuxedo cat lying beside window

Denali was miserable and so was Linda. He avoided her because she gave him the hated pills. He learned to spit out the medicine, and continued to suffer two or more seizures each day. Linda considered euthanizing her beloved cat.

Before taking that final step, Linda reached out to cat-loving friends for help. Colleagues, breeders, family members (including her veterinarian sister, Dr. Jane Milan in Houston) answered with suggestions, referrals, veterinary literature, and moral support. Linda started a blog and set up a website to document Denali's journey. She's become an expert on kitty seizures.

Defining Seizures

A seizure is a kind of biological power surge that blows out the breakers of the brain. Neurons carry tiny electrical messages from the brain throughout the nervous system. A seizure happens if they misfire. Most seizures last only a few minutes and are more frightening than dangerous but can affect the quality of life for the pet and owners, especially if they recur with any frequency, as with Denali.

photo of gray and black coated cat
photo of gray and black coated cat

Seizures aren't common in cats. Nearly any illness (​FIP, heatstroke, poisoning, liver failure, brain tumors) may cause seizures. Seizure from head trauma can cause scar tissue in the brain that prompts seizures. Because of the varied causes and different signs that can be confused with other issues, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause. Many cases of seizures in cats remain a mystery. But Linda was on a mission, determined not only to find the cause but also a treatment.

Grand Mal Seizures

Pets usually suffer major motor seizures (a.k.a. grand mal or tonic/clonic episode) in which most or all of the brain is affected. The victim falls, loses bodily control and may vocalize while the legs paddle, twitch or jerk.

Psychomotor Seizures

Psychomotor seizures affect behavior. The pet seems to hallucinate and watch or snap at invisible objects. Dogs can inherit this type of seizure (fly biting). Other psychomotor seizures cause pets to become aggressive or fearful. Some types of compulsive/obsessive behaviors result from psychomotor seizures, such as tail chasing in dogs, or certain types of hyperesthesia syndromes in cats.

grey and white cat in close-up photography
grey and white cat in close-up photography

Focal Seizures

Partial seizures (also called focal seizures) affect only one part of the brain. They occur as a result of brain trauma and can cause distinctive behaviors such as lip licking, chewing, and whisker twitches and are repeated in that particular pet.

Denali's Diagnosis

After exhaustive research, Linda learned that there's very little information about feline seizures caused by head trauma. Some experts believe head trauma accounts for more seizures than other disease processes. She videotaped Denali's episodes to share with veterinary neurologists—a key element in his diagnosis—and sought a specialist for a second opinion.

A month after the first seizure, Dr. Jim Fitzsimmons, of AAHA Cumming Veterinary Clinic in Georgia gave the definitive diagnosis: focal seizures due to head trauma. He explained that a classic sign of focal seizure behavior in cats is toe chewing. Dr. Fitzsimmons noted that Denali also showed signs of hyperesthesia syndrome behaviors, and also had some flea issues. Stressors such as flea baths can trigger seizures, but fleas did not cause his problems.

person holding white kitten
person holding white kitten
orange cat running on grass field during daytime
orange cat running on grass field during daytime

Denali may have seizures for the rest of his life. About 20 to 30 percent of pets don't respond well to drugs. Some of the same human medications for controlling seizures are also used in veterinary medicine. Your veterinarian can help choose the best treatment plan for your pet.

There was a 50/50 chance that the drug Phenobarbital wouldn't work, but it is working! Linda says. Since starting the drug, Denali has not had any seizures. Linda and Dr. Fitzsimmons will eventually aim to reduce the medicine to find a minimum effective dose.

What to Do

As with many mystery behaviors, Denali suffered a constellation of signs that required a bit of sleuthing to understand. Linda urges cat owners to seek medical care promptly, but don't hesitate to do your research and seek a second opinion.

Denali's behavior has returned to normal, except for longer naps maybe as a result of his medicine, says Linda. He strolls around, watches birds, scratches on the post, and comes to me when I call him. We couldn't be happier here.