One of the scariest experiences for a pet owner is witnessing your beloved four-legged companion experience a seizure. It can be incredibly upsetting and leave many doting parents not knowing how to proceed. What is the best way to comfort your feline during a seizure? What medications will be necessary and do they have potential side effects? Why did your cat have a seizure in the first place? We understand that this can be a confusing time in both your cat's life and your own life, and we are here to help.
In this article, we'll cover all you need to know regarding cat seizures. If your cat experiences seizures or just had their first seizure, there are several things you must understand before moving forward with treatment. Let's get to it!
What is a Seizure
Before we get into the specifics as to why your cat is experiencing a seizure, it is important to understand exactly what a seizure is. A seizure is a sudden, uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain. It is often accompanied by involuntary muscle activity. The term epilepsy is used to describe repeated episodes of seizures. Epilepsy can cause single seizure episodes or cluster seizures. Additionally, the seizures can either occur in random, unpredictable intervals or in regular sequences.
You may hear your veterinarian refer to seizures as convulsions. They are also commonly called fits. Both terms refer to the sudden, uncontrolled electrical activity occurring in the cat's brain.
Types of Seizures in Cats
Most often, seizures are either referred to as focal or generalized.
Generalized seizures are caused by the entire cerebral cortex. The seizures often affect the entire body.
Focal seizures are caused by a smaller, localized area of the cerebral cortex and are isolated to specific body parts. The seizures are also referred to as partial seizures.
Petit Mal Seizure & Grand Mal Seizures
There are two general types of epileptic seizures in cats: petit mal and grand mal.
Petit mal seizures do not cause convulsions. Typically, the cat will suddenly collapse into an unconscious state.
Grand mal seizures cause the cat to fall on their side and experience muscle convulsions. Grand mal seizures are diagnosed much more frequency than petit mal seizures.
Neither petit mal or grand mal seizures will cause your feline to experience any pain, however, they will often be confused and disoriented once the seizure passes.
Seizure Symptoms | Signs of a Seizure
Understanding and being able to recognize the signs of a seizure is paramount for pet owners. In fact, there are a number of symptoms that are actually warning signs that a seizure is about to occur. Knowing these signs can help cat owners react more efficiently and ensure their feline's safety during the episode.
Pre-ictal State | Aura State
The pre-ictal or aura state occurs just moments before the seizure happens. In this phase, your cat may exhibit behavioral changes such as pacing, walking in circles, vomiting, and yowling. Many cat owners report that their feline acts nervous right before having a seizure as if they know that something strange is about to happen. Some cats may actively seek out their owners while others may hide. This phase only lasts a few seconds but recognizing the signs will help cat owners act quickly.
During a generalized seizure, cats typically fall to one side and become stiff. Then, the convulsions begin and the cat will experience uncontrollable muscle contractions. The contractions will cause ridged jerking motions, paddling feet, snapping of the jaw, and other comparable actions. Your cat may also lose control of their bowels and defecate or urinate during a seizure. Typically, the seizure phase lasts one to two minutes. If the seizure lasts more than five minutes, immediate medical attention is paramount. These types of seizures can cause permanent brain damage and, at times, even death.
The post-ictal state occurs after the seizure. In this state, the cat may have temporary paralysis in one or more of their limbs. They will also be extremely disoriented and confused, especially if they involuntarily urinated or defecated on themselves during the seizure. It is also normal for your cat to seem like they lost their vision, vomit, or have other behavioral changes.
Symptoms of Focal Seizures
The clinical signs of focal seizures differ from those of generalized seizures. In focal seizures, the cat will often cry out as if they are in pain. Cats can also have behavioral changes and become aggressive, even if they are usually sweet mannered. Focal seizures can also cause excessive salivation and drooling along with other atypical behavior.
Cat Having a Seizure: What To Do
If you notice symptoms of the pre-ictal state, do everything you can to ensure your cat's safety during the seizure. This means keeping them away from furniture or things on the floor that they could hurt themselves with. Additionally, make sure the cat is in a different room than other animals in the house. A seizing cat can frighten other pets can cause them to attack or try to make it stop.
Next, be sure to keep your hands and fingers away from your cat's mouth during a seizure. The popular belief that they can choke on their tongue simply isn't true. The erratic, unpredictable nature of seizures may cause your cat to accidentally bite you.
Most veterinarians will advise pet owners to step aside and allow the process to happen. Try your best to remain as calm as possible. Cats are highly sensitive to their owner's energy. If you are freaking out, they will follow suit.
Again, when the seizure stops your cat will likely be extremely disoriented and may not recognize you straight away. This can scare your feline and cause them to run away or even attack in some cases.
Perhaps the most important thing that cat owners can do is observe, take specific notes, and report the information to their veterinarian. The more information that your vet has, the better they will be able to diagnose the condition and formulate an appropriate treatment plan. Take note of the duration of the seizure as well as the frequency. Also, consider whether the seizures occur during specific times, i.e. feeding or excitement. Is there a possibility that your cat was exposed to any toxins? Are they on any new supplements or medications? All of these factors will help your veterinarian treat your cat.
What Causes Seizures in Cats
In some cases, seizures in cats is an unavoidable condition. Your veterinarian may not be able to pinpoint the underlying cause and there may not have been anything the pet owner could have done to prevent its development. However, in some cases, seizures are the result of a specific event or sequence of events.
Many experts believe that one of the leading causes of seizures in cats is exposure to environmental toxins. If a cat is exposed to toxins such as antifreeze (ethylene glycol), the result is often seizures. Additionally, flea and tick medications that are intended for dogs can lead to seizures if they are administered to a cat. Flea and tick medications along with certain shampoos, sprays, and dips contain an ingredient called pyrethrin. While typically safe for all dogs, pyrethrin is highly toxic for cats and can cause them to experience muscle tremors and convulsions. These toxins can also affect the cat's nervous system and lead to a number of additional problems.
Another cause of seizures in cats is the accidental ingestion of human medications. Cats are known for their love of exploration. If they come across their owner's medicine, particularly antidepressants and ADHD medications, the result will often be severe seizures that will need immediate emergency care. It is imperative that pet owners make sure their medications are kept locked away and out of their cat's reach. Furthermore, if you have both cats and dogs, be sure to never treat your feline with any flea or tick medicine intended for canines.
In other cases, seizures in cats are caused by previous damage to the brain. The cat has likely recovered and will not have any other symptoms relating to the damage when seizure activity begins. Head trauma can result from events like being hit by a car or falling out of a tree. Additionally, damage to the brain can result from infections, tumors, and parasites. Diseases such as feline infectious peritonitis can cause lesions in the brain and result in often irreversible damage. All of these factors can contribute to the development of seizures.
Sometimes, seizures can occur for reasons outside of the brain. Conditions like hypoglycemia, untreated hypertension, kidney disease, liver disease, tumors, meningitis, and varies infections can all induce seizures in cats.
Cats can also have epilepsy which does not have an identifiable cause.
Recent research has linked some seizures in cats to specific noises. The condition is called “audiogenic reflex seizures” and occurs when the cat hears certain noises such as tapping on a glass surface, a metal spoon clinking on the food bowl, the crinkling of aluminum foil, and even the sound of pulling velcro apart. The studies were most commonly observed in older cats, around fifteen years old. Many owners found the results to be shocking due to the fact they believed their cat was deaf. Continued research is presently being done on the topic.
Idiopathic epilepsy is infrequently diagnosed in cats, but does occur at times. The condition refers to an inherited disorder and is commonly diagnosed in dogs.
Cat Seizure Diagnosis
DIagnosing cat seizures ultimately begins with the cat owner observing their feline's first episode. If your cat is having a seizure when they are taken to the vet, your veterinarian will likely administer an injectable diazepam or a dose of phenobarbital in order to stop the seizure so that they can examine the cat thoroughly. As we previously mentioned, the more information you can provide your vet with the better and quicker they are able to diagnose your feline. There are a number of important details to take note of including:
- What age did the seizures first start?
- Do the seizures occur intermittently or at regular intervals?
- How long do the seizures last?
- How often do the seizures occur?
- Is your cat taking any new supplements or medications?
- Is there a possibility of toxin ingestion?
- Do you see a correlation between the seizures and specific events (i.e. excitement, feeding, sleeping, etc.)?
- Have you noticed any other behavioral changes (i.e. appetite loss, aggression, etc.)?
The more information you're able to provide, the better equipped your veterinarian will be in diagnosing and treating their condition.
In order to identify the underlying cause of the seizures, your veterinarian will likely perform a series of testing. These tests often include blood tests and exams to rule out extracranial causes. Additionally, general anesthesia may be necessary in order for the veterinarian to perform an x-ray of the skull as well as take samples of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) surrounding the brain.
Finally, advanced testing such as a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and a computer-assisted tomography (CT) allow the veterinarian to closely examine the structure of the brain.
Seizure Copycats: What Else it Could Be
There are a few medical conditions that closely mimic the clinical signs of a seizure but are, in fact, something entirely different. For instance, a number of different heart problems can cause your cat to suddenly faint and may resemble a petit mal seizure. Additionally, vitamin B deficiencies can also lead to symptoms that closely resemble seizures, yet are far from it. Finally, female cats in heat often exhibit signs that pet owners can misunderstand and believe are seizures. For this reason, an accurate diagnosis from a trained professional is imperative in making sure your cat receives the appropriate, needed treatment.
Treatment for Seizures
Cats who experience frequent seizures and those who are diagnosed with epilepsy are typically prescribed an anticonvulsant medication, most commonly a drug called phenobarbital. If the phenobarbital medication is not making a significant change in the frequency and severity of the seizure activity, an additional drug such as diazepam or gabapentin may also be included in their treatment plan.
With that being said, phenobarbital and all anticonvulsant medications are accompanied by a slew of potential adverse reactions. A quick glance at the list of side effects can be quite worrisome for a pet owner. Not to mention, the drugs can cause irreversible liver damage if used consistently. For this reason, veterinarians must carefully determine whether starting such a drug is the best way to treat the condition.
In other cases where the underlying cause of the seizure activity is known, steps to remove the cause will be a necessary part of treatment. For instance, if an environmental factor is at the root of the seizures, pet owners must do everything in their power to rid the specific toxin from their cat's day-to-day life.
How to Prevent Seizures
In the vast majority of cases, there is no real way for pet owners to 100% prevent the development of seizures. With that said, cat owners can ensure their feline's health and wellbeing by scheduling regular checkups, staying implicitly aware of any changes they notice, and acting efficiently and appropriately. Additionally, cat owners can make sure that their feline stays far away from human medications as well as medications formulated for canines.
Unfortunately, most of the time the only thing a cat parent can do is help prevent the worsening of the condition. Medication can decrease the frequency and severity of seizure activity, but seizures may still occur from time to time.
Living with Seizures
Again, long-term anticonvulsant use can have severe, irreversible effects on the cat's liver. Therefore, if your feline's seizures occur more than two months apart, many vets will advise against conventional medications. With that said, if your cat has had one seizure, they will likely have another. It is important for cat owners to take note of their feline's seizures, the severity, and the frequency. The more information your veterinarian has regarding your cat's seizures, the better treatment plan they can put forward. Also, if your cat's seizures change over time it is important to make sure your veterinarian knows so that they can make the appropriate medication alterations.
Additionally, ensuring that your cat is being fed a well-balanced, species-appropriate diet has proven to help reduce the severity and frequency of seizures in cats. Because seizures are often a lifelong diagnosis, cat owners should consider making permanent lifestyle changes in order to make the condition has infrequent and mild as possible. As with many diseases, dietary changes can make a world of difference. We recommend consulting with a holistic veterinarian regarding the specific changes that will benefit your cat's individual needs.
If your cat's seizures are frequent, longterm anticonvulsant medication will often be necessary. In these cases, it is imperative to schedule routine blood testing and checkups as the medicine can cause additional health concerns to develop. Furthermore, if longterm medication is required, cat owners should take additional precautions to ensure that their cat's diet and environment are as toxin-free as possible to avoid causing greater stress on the liver.
Cat Seizure: A Final Thought
At the end of the day, we know that you want nothing but the very best for your four-legged feline. You stay up to date on the latest health advancements. You feed your furbaby only the best food. When push comes to shove, you'd do just about anything to ensure their happiness and wellbeing. Therefore, we understand that it can not only be heartwrenching, but frustrating when health problems inevitably arise. Seizures are, unfortunately, a condition that many cat owners will have to manage. While it can be extremely difficult watching your feline suffer any amount, there are effective ways to lessen both the frequency and severity of your cat's seizures. Pet owners must make sure their cat's diet is the very best for their individual condition. We know that this can be a hard time for both your cat and for you. However, cat seizures can be managed and cats who experience seizures can still live long, happy lives when properly treated.
Petal Smart is a veterinarian who, after a brief stint in clinical practice, has been a medical, veterinary, and science editor for the past four years. She has edited hundreds of research studies that have been published in various academic journals, and more recently, she has been editing blog articles on pet health. She holds a DVM (Hons) from the University of the West Indies - St. Augustine. Her pets in the past have included dogs, fish, birds, and a turtle. At times, she also likes to think of herself as a horse whisperer. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.
*This article has been edited and updated for publication by Petal Smart, DVM.