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It’s a terrifying sight to witness your cat having a seizure, especially when you haven’t seen one before. Seizures can look very different from animal to animal, and the cause of the seizures will influence this greatly. In this article we’ll share what you need to know about feline seizures.
1. How do I know my cat is having a seizure? Seizures can vary significantly in appearance from animal to animal. Seizures used to be classified as ‘petit mal’ and ‘grand mal’, but now, these terms are rarely used by veterinarians, and are rather called ‘partial’ and ‘full’ seizures. These terms describe how much of the brain is being affected by the hyperactive nerves.
A partial seizure, depending on the area of the brain affected, might not even cause a loss of consciousness. Usually symptoms displayed are a loss of attention, twitching muscles, or a change in sight, such as spots in front of the eyes which may cause the cat to act like they are trying to catch a fly. A full seizure, however, is what people classically know as a seizure. This usually causes the cat to drop to the ground, shake, bite, have stiff legs, and foam at the mouth. They may also defecate or urinate from muscle contractions and loss of control. The cat within this time will probably not close their eyes, but they are not rousable or conscious of what they are doing.
Seizures generally last just a few minutes, but if they go on for over 5 minutes, the cat must be seen by a veterinarian immediately. If the cat seizures for over 30 minutes, this will lead to permanent irreversible brain damage. Seizures can also come in clusters, which are defined as more than 2 seizures in 24 hours. Cluster seizures indicate a serious clinical cause.
You may be able to tell that your animal is about to have a seizure, as their behavior will change hours or even days before. This is called the ‘prodrome’ phase. The behavior might also remain unusual for hours or days after the seizure as well, known as the ‘post-ictal’ phase.
2. What are the causes of seizures in cats? There are many causes of seizures in cats; some benign, and some extremely serious. Many people know seizures as epilepsy, but epilepsy is just one cause of seizures. True epilepsy is thought to be genetic in origin and is diagnosed through a process of ruling out every other cause. Generally, epilepsy begins in the first 6 years of life, so if your elderly cat is having a seizure for the first time, then it is unlikely to be epilepsy causing it.
Other causes of seizures are more cause for concern. They are split into two categories; intra-cranial and extra-cranial.
Intra-cranial seizures are from diseases present inside the brain. This could be due to tumors, trauma, bleeds or infections, and are extremely serious and often difficult to treat.
Extra-cranial seizures are from issues outside of the brain, such as toxins or related to defective internal organs.
3. What do I do if my cat is having a seizure? If your cat is having a seizure, the most important thing is to try not to panic. The first thing you must do is note the time, so you can tell your veterinarian how long the seizure lasted for. Next, remove all objects in the vicinity of your cat so that they cannot harm themselves if they are convulsing. If you have another person in the room with you, ask them to video record the seizure whilst you phone your emergency vet services to tell them your cat is seizing and requires to be seen. The video will help your vet greatly in determining the cause.
Be aware that if you touch your cat whilst he is seizing, there is a high chance you may be bitten by accident. Therefore, only try to move your cat if their seizure continues for more than 2 minutes. Otherwise, allow the seizure to finish, then immediately take them to your veterinary clinic for a check over and testing. If you have to move them whilst they are seizing, be cautious of the head, and place them in the car in such a way that they cannot harm themselves.
4. What will the vet do? Most seizures will have finished by the time you arrive at the veterinarian, however a check over and tests as close to the time of seizure as possible are important to determine the cause.
If your cat is still seizing when you arrive, the vet will give emergency medication to stop the seizure. This often is in the form of diazepam, administered rectally. This will stop the seizure long enough for the vet to place a cannula in the vein to administer further drugs if the seizure returns. You cat may need to remain sedated to stop the seizures, and if toxins are suspected, the vet might flush their system with intravenous fluids whilst they are sedated.
If your cat is no longer seizing when you arrive at the vet, they will perform a check over to see if there are any neurological changes. This might involve looking in the eyes, testing reflexes and checking mentation. If these are all normal, the next step would be for your vet to do a blood test to investigate whether all internal organs are normal or if the body is fighting an infection. However, if the neurological exam is abnormal, this is an indication there is an intra-cranial cause. An MRI scan by a specialist veterinary hospital is the only way the brain can be fully assessed to understand the root cause.
5. How are seizures treated? The cause of the seizure will influence the treatment of it. For extra-cranial seizures, if a toxin is suspected, the cat will be hospitalized and intensively treated to attempt to flush the toxin out of the system as soon as possible before major internal damage is done. If they determine a defective organ is the cause, then further investigations may be needed to fully understand what disease process is present, and this will need to be treated specifically.
For intra-cranial seizures, if there is a tumor that can be removed, then a veterinary neurologist may attempt surgery. This is a risky and costly procedure though, and many owners will instead opt for euthanasia. If the intra-cranial cause is an infection, then antibiotics may be started based on culture of the spinal fluid. Finally, if it is a trauma or a bleed, the cat may just be given anti-inflammatories and nursed gently back to health either at home or hospitalized in the vet clinic.
If all other causes have been ruled out, and a diagnosis of epilepsy has been made, long-term medication is available to help reduce the frequency of seizures. This medication has side effects such as weight gain, behavior change and lethargy, and so the quality of life of the cat must be taken into account when deciding whether to medicate or not.
6. What is the prognosis for the future? The prognosis is dependent on the cause of the seizure. In young cats, where epilepsy has been diagnosed, long-term treatment is often effective and they can live a normal happy life, however, they are likely to need yearly blood tests to ensure the medication is not causing any side effects.
If the cause was a toxin, then as long as there was no brain damage and the toxin was fully flushed out of their system before any internal damage was done, then there should be no long-lasting complications.
Tumors, infections, defective organs, trauma, and bleeds in the brain are more variable in diagnosis. The prognosis will be dependent on how progressed they are at the time of the seizure, and will often involve intensive and early veterinary treatment for the best chance for the future.