Epilepsy in Cats: Is My Cat Having a Seizure?
I Do Not Have Epilepsy
This account is from what you might call 'first-and-a-half-hand' experience in dealing with one of our cats who had epilepsy since she was a tiny kitten. Regardless of the species affected, the condition manifests in the same ways.
Patches on the Day We Brought Her Home
What Is Epilepsy, Anyway?
The simplest analogy to explain what causes epilepsy is that of a short circuit in the wiring of the brain. A signal starts from point 'A' heading for point 'B' and partway there, it hits an open gap, or roadblock, but the signal keeps trying anyway to get through; it may then try to find another path, and it eventually spreads throughout the brain.
This results in the seizure, as the motor control functions are disrupted. In the generalized seizure, the animal will fall down and begin thrashing about uncontrollably. While this is happening, they are "not there"; they will not respond to you. Their eyes may be open, closed, or rolling around.
Afterwards, they may be confused, dazed, and very certainly tired and sore. (I used to have a neighbor with the condition, and he described coming out of a seizure as feeling as if he'd been run over by a Mack truck; every muscle in his body ached.)
How Can I Tell If It's a Seizure?
First, you need to be familiar enough with your kitty to recognize unusual behavior or actions. Cats do dream, and they can be twitching in their sleep, as they dream of catching something.
A seizure looks different, however. A mild seizure is sometimes barely noticeable; it may be only rapid blinking of the eyes a few times and/or the twitching or shaking of a single paw. If you are not looking at the cat, you may not even notice it happening.
The video just below shows this type of seizure. That cat's problem was caused by diabetic shock, according to the owner. There are many other causes as well. Some of the causes may be:
- trauma (this is what happened to our cat; trauma from anesthesia overdose)
In the absence of any of these conditions, it is quite rare in young cats.
A Mild Type of Seizure
Helping Kitty Through the Seizure
Toss out most of what you may have learned in first aid classes for humans having a seizure. A cat is not a human, and different measures need to be taken.
- If you can safely move the cat, do so; preferably onto a bathroom or kitchen floor, where there is no carpet. During the episode, the cat may drool profusely, and/or lose bladder or bowel control or both. This is in addition to shaking or twitching, sometimes violently, as happened with our kitty.
- Use a towel to put over the kitty's head, to block light from their eyes. In a full-blown whole-body seizure, you will notice their eyes may be fully dilated, even in bright light. While their eyes are usually wide open, they are actually unconscious. The towel will protect their eyes, as well as sometimes shortening the duration of the episode.
- Keeping your hands well away from the mouth, gently restrain the cat, so it does not hurt itself on nearby objects. (See the video down the page of the white cat for illustration of this method.) A cat thrashing its limbs about will manage to "crawl," even if lying on its side, which is common, due to the claws pulling them along. If their claws get hold of carpet, it can end badly.
In fact, this happened to our kitty once! We had gone out for an errand, and on our return, found the evidence of a seizure, along with some bloody footprints. Upon examining her feet, we discovered that she'd caught her claws in the carpet, and 2 of them had been ripped out of her paws to the roots! Poor Patches!!
After the Seizure
Once the episode has passed, kitty may exhibit any of several behaviors. She may act confused and disoriented; she may be very hungry, or very sleepy.
Our kitty would have very violent 'grand-mal' or 'generalized' seizures, involving her entire body. Afterwards, she would still be very out of it, and I would hold her, wrapped in a towel for comfort, until she came to enough to want to be put down.
At that point, she would head right for her food bowl, and eat a large portion, then go to sleep for several hours. When you think about it, this is not surprising. What has just happened amounts to one heck of a cardio workout. I'd be tired and sleepy after that as well!
This Cat's Seizure Looks Just Like What Patches Went Through
Stopping a Seizure Before It Happens
One thing we learned was that any kind of a repetitive clicking or ticking noise was likely to trigger a seizure. We learned to be very careful about unconsciously making such noises, such as tapping pencils or drumming fingers while waiting for something, or making clicking sounds with the tongue, or we would almost instantly see her start to twitch.
We found a few tricks, as well. If we caught her immediately prior to seizing, just starting with tiny little 'body quakes,' if we could get to her and pick her up suddenly, tap her gently on the head, or ruffle her fur quite vigorously, it seemed to interrupt the short-circuit in the brain, by giving it something else to process; but once the seizure was full-blown, these things did not work.
If the seizure was longer than normal, we would sometimes carry her to the sink, and run some water over her head. This seemed to have the same effect as the tricks we used in the pre-seizure mode, except that it could bring her out of a full-on seizure.
The Onset of a Seizure Poses a Real Danger for Kitty
The dangerous part for kitty, however, was that she seemed to realize when one was about to hit, and would attempt to run away from it. She would frantically run blindly about, trying to climb walls, furniture, anything she could, until the escape failed, and the seizure overtook her.
Ironically, a seizure would often come upon her and waken her when she was sound asleep! This would begin her panicked flight about the house.
This is where and why we had to try to intercede and stop the process from continuing, as she had gotten into some real predicaments from time to time that could have turned out very badly.
The photo below shows where we found her one morning after searching the whole house. This must have happened while we were asleep, and did not hear her running. Who knows how many minutes or hours poor Patches was stuck in there?!
Some Terrible Predicaments
Beware the Bite!
During the seizure, while we were holding her and watching that her claws did not become ensnared, it was also important that we kept our hands well away from her mouth, as the jaw muscles were also involved, and she would be involuntarily snapping her mouth open and closed.
That was a lesson learned the hard way! During one of her early seizures, my husband was trying to help her out of the seizure, and got his hand in the way of her mouth. Her teeth pierced clean through the web between his thumb and index finger, and locked! He is a six-foot, two-hundred pound man with a lot of muscle, and it was hard for him to get her mouth opened to free his hand! Where was I? Outside, cleaning up after the dog we had at the time, so I did not hear him calling for assistance!
Be advised that your little pet kitty's jaw can produce enough force to break finger bones! In fact, their bite force amounts to about thirteen pounds of pressure per square inch (PSI). Bolstered with sharp teeth, that's plenty to do some real damage! (In fact, adjusted out on a relative pound of force to size ratio, a cat bites with more force than the long extinct megalodon super shark!)
How Did She Come to Have Epilepsy?
The history on our poor kitty was this:
We adopted her from a rescue organization back in 1998. She was a tiny thing, barely 6 weeks old, and under a pound. She fit in the palm of my husband's hand. She and her siblings had been found, just days old, inside a paper sack tossed into a paint locker at a local school.
The kittens were placed with a foster family to bottle-feed and raise until they were old enough to adopt. One of the litter didn't make it. The others were placed for adoption. Up until that point, the kitten we picked out did not have epilepsy.
I now volunteer with a rescue organization myself, and I know how the system works. If the family fostering the kittens had seen any such evidence, the cat would have been put down, and not put up for adoption.
Is Early Spaying a Standard Practice?
Most rescue groups enforce an early spay/neuter policy—but not with kittens that young. The current standard for early spay/neuter is a minimum of 2 months and 2 pounds for males; closer to 2.5 pounds for females.
The group I'm with will not display the kittens for adoption until they have reached that point and are already spayed or neutered, or, in special circumstances, they will allow the adoption, but the kitten stays with the foster family until the procedure is done.
Unfortunately, that was not true of this other group, and they insisted she had to be spayed at such a tiny and delicate stage.
The Wrong Anesthesia, or an Overdose . . .
According to my current veterinarian, a commonly used anesthetic for cats is isoflurane. In looking this up on the Internet, I found that it can cause a marked increase in intracranial or cerebrospinal pressure.
Pressure on the brain often causes brain injury of some kind--it is the reason shunts are installed for conditions such as hydrocephalus, or to relieve pressure from accidental traumas.
Because she was so tiny, the anesthesia had a more pronounced effect, and the end result was some brain damage, which caused her to have epilepsy. We noticed her first seizure after we'd had her home only 2 days.
It was what is called a "petit mal" or "absence" seizure--she simply stiffened up and zoned out, and was "not there" for about half a minute.
It Soon Got Worse
Within a couple of weeks, we saw the onset of grand-mal, or what are now called 'tonic-clonic' or 'generalized' seizures, involving full-body involuntary muscle spasms. These would last anywhere from a few seconds to almost a full minute. Whether you are watching this happen to a tiny kitten or to a child, the feeling of sadness and helplessness is overwhelming.
The poor cat was having these episodes several times a week. It was heartbreaking to see, but at the same time, when she was not in the throes of a seizure, she was a normal. sweet kitty, and nothing else was wrong with her. She had already stolen our hearts, and we could not bear to think of putting her down, as she was not suffering 24/7.
Challenging the Veterinary Medical Profession
The worst part, actually, was getting a veterinarian to listen to reason and convince them of the problem. The vet we had at the time wanted to 'pooh-pooh' the idea that a cat could have epilepsy, and especially that young. He claimed that dogs sometimes start having seizures as they get old, and cats, less often.
The vet responsible for the surgery, further wanted to lay the blame on some obscure birth defect, called a 'liver shunt,' and send her to a university veterinary teaching hospital at great expense for surgery. We declined. You see, my husband had an uncle who suffered from epilepsy, and he knew very well what an epileptic seizure looked like in all of its forms.
It took an entire year of helplessly watching kitty have these episodes before we finally found a vet who listened, and put the cat on appropriate medication.
If this happens to your pet, stick to your guns, and keep searching until you find a vet who has their head on straight.
Patches in Normal Kitty Mode
For many years, the barbiturate, Phenobarbital, was used to help control seizures in people. Some human medications can also be prescribed for animals. In this case, it was the Phenobarbital that was given to the cat, even though for people, it is considered an 'older' treatment that is not much used anymore.
A Secondary Medication Is Sometimes Needed
Her seizures were fairly well under control once we got her on the medication. We got this kitty in 1998, and she was started on the Phenobarbital in 1999. That helped a lot. It reduced the frequency from several times a week to once or twice a month.
As the years went by, however, we began seeing an upswing in the frequency again, to sometimes once a week. In 2003 we moved to our current location, and our new vet added Valium to her regimen. This helped to reduce the frequency back down to once a month or less. Though there were bound to be "break-through" seizures, as I'm sure any human sufferer can attest.
In her later years, and with the knowledge and consent of our vet, we tried her on cannabis butter, which has been shown to work in humans with the condition. It was nearly miraculous! Instead of being a zoned-out zombie on hard drugs, she was again alert, and even learned to play again!
The butter was given in a dose about the size of a pea, twice daily. It lasted for about six hours. Unfortunately, this meant she had to have the hard stuff overnight, as we sleep longer than six hours. However, by the time she was ready for the next dose of butter, she'd slept off the barbiturate, and we had our kitty back.
Please be careful!! Not all medicines can cross species lines and remain safe and effective, so please do not self-medicate your pets with any of your own medications!
Always consult your veterinarian.
At the age of 16-1/2 years, on the 25th of March, 2015, our dear Patches had to be helped to cross the Rainbow Bridge.
She had gone down hill suddenly in the last week, and very suddenly on that day, all her medications had stopped working; she was experiencing multiple mini-seizures throughout the day, and had lost even the ability to stand up. Her eyes were dilated and unfocused. It was time, and we tearfully said farewell to our beautiful, sweet old girl.
She sleeps the long sleep in a sunny spot in the yard, for she always loved to lay in a sunny window or in a "sun puddle" on the carpet.
Fly Free, Dear Patches!
References and Sources
- Cat Seizures and Epilepsy 101
Seizures are not uncommon, but learn what can make them dangerous and when your cat needs emergency care.
- Seizures in Cats | Epilepsy in Cats | Signs of Seizures | petMD
Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes the affected cat to have sudden, uncontrolled, recurring physical attacks, with or without loss of consciousness.
- Pot for Pets: How Medical Marijuana Can Help Your Cat - The Conscious Cat
CannaVet, formed by two Seattle veterinarians, is one of the pioneers of using medical marijuana for pets.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2012 Liz Elias