Seizures and Convulsions in Cats

It can be very upsetting to see your cat have a seizure. Fortunately a single seizure is usually of short duration, and your cat is unconscious while convulsing. Seizures happen when abnormal electrochemical activity occurs in the brain. They can occur as a single event, as a cluster of seizures over a short period, or on a recurring basis every few weeks or months.

What to Watch For

A seizure usually starts by the cat collapsing onto the ground, going stiff, and then going into convulsions -- uncontrolled muscle contractions, which may make your cat look like he’s jerking his body, paddling his feet, snapping his jaw, and similar movements. Your cat may even empty his bowels and bladder during the seizure. Typically, a seizure only lasts a minute or two.

Sometimes a cat will exhibit behavior changes shortly before a seizure (called an aura or pre-ictal behavior), such as pacing, circling, yowling or vomiting. After the seizure (post-ictal), your cat will be disoriented, may show temporary paralysis in one or more legs, seem blind, vomit, or show other behavior changes. These changes are usually short-lived, although it may take several days before your cat seems completely “normal” again.

Primary Cause

Most seizures in cats are the result of previous damage to the brain, from which the cat has recovered and often has no other symptoms. Some seizures seem to occur spontaneously with no discernible cause. These are both forms of epilepsy.

Immediate Care

When your cat has a seizure, your primary goal is to keep him from hurting himself. Most seizures last only a few minutes at most, which means he will probably be over the seizure before you can get him to your car, let alone your veterinarian. Even so, he should still be taken to the vet. You can do the following to help your cat:

  1. Remain calm.
  2. Remember your cat is unconscious and making uncontrolled movements, including snapping his jaw. Be very careful not to get bit or scratched.
  3. If possible, move your cat to a safe place, away from stairs, furniture, etc. Sometimes other animals in the house will attack a seizuring animal; they will certainly be curious or upset, so keep them away for everyone’s safety.
  4. When the seizure stops, your cat will be disoriented and may not recognize you. This could result in your cat attacking you or running away.
  5. If the seizure doesn’t stop, or he’s having cluster seizures, your cat needs to go to your veterinarian as soon as possible for treatment to stop the seizures.

Veterinary Care

Diagnosis

If your cat is seizuring when you bring him in, he will be given injectable diazepam, or possibly phenobarbital, to stop the seizure before any examination. Diagnosis is primarily based on the information that you provide, plus direct observation of the seizure.

Most diagnostic tests are to determine the cause of the seizure. These would include blood and urine tests and possibly X-rays. Testing the cerebrospinal fluid or performing MRI imaging may also be recommended. Electroencephalograms (EEG) are rarely done.

Treatment

If your cat seizures while at your veterinarian’s office, he will be given injectable diazepam or phenobarbital. If seizures are severe enough, general anesthesia may be needed. If something other than epilepsy is determined to be the cause of the seizure, that underlying cause will be treated.

A single seizure of less than 5 minutes duration that is determined to be epilepsy is usually not treated beyond stopping the initial seizure. Long-lasting seizures, cluster seizures, or seizures that recur every 2 months (or less) are usually treated long term or even life-long with anticonvulsants. The most common medication for this is phenobarbital. If this is not providing sufficient control, another medication, like diazepam or gabapentin, is added on to the treatment plan.

Other Causes

Hypoglycemia, kidney disease, liver disease, meningitis, tumors and various infections can all potentially cause seizures.

Living and Management

In most cases, if a cat has one seizure he is likely to have another eventually. However, not every cat that has recurring seizures will be put on long-term medication. Because of the stress on the liver that long term anticonvulsant use can cause, the medicine is usually not given to cats whose seizures are more than two months apart.

If your cat is on long-term medication, he will need regular checkups and blood tests to ensure the medications are not causing other health problems.

Prevention

Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent your cat from developing epilepsy. And even if your cat has been diagnosed with epilepsy and is on medication, that may not completely eliminate seizures. Sometimes the best that can be done is to minimize their severity and try to limit them to a predictable schedule.

Image via Shutterstock

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