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Epilepsy in Cats: Is My Cat Having a Seizure?

Updated on February 23, 2017
DzyMsLizzy profile image

Liz is not in the medical field, but is fascinated by the subject. She urges people with any issues to see their doctor for diagnosis.

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 the Day We Brought Her Home

Patches was a very tiny girl when we got her
Patches was a very tiny girl when we got her | Source

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 part way there, hits an open gap, or roadblock, but the signal keeps trying anyway to get through; it may then try to find another path, and 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)
  • tumors
  • infections

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.

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

Poor Patches, jammed in under the couch next to the recliner mechanism while trying to escape a seizure; poor kitty was upside-down in this predicament.  The couch is turned over in the photo!
Poor Patches, jammed in under the couch next to the recliner mechanism while trying to escape a seizure; poor kitty was upside-down in this predicament. The couch is turned over in the photo! | Source

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!)

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.

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 8 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.

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

She was such a beautiful dilute smoke tortie, and quite the scamp as a kitten; she used to climb my husband and sit on his head!
She was such a beautiful dilute smoke tortie, and quite the scamp as a kitten; she used to climb my husband and sit on his head! | Source

Which Medication?

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.

Alternative Medicine

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.

Caution! Warning!

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.

Epilogue

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!

Patches in a silly, relaxed pose, in "normal kitty" mode
Patches in a silly, relaxed pose, in "normal kitty" mode | Source

© 2012 Liz Elias

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  • DzyMsLizzy profile image
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    Liz Elias 4 months ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, always exploring,

    Thank you so very much. I know what you mean; in the beginning, I did not worry about SEO; I just wrote whatever I felt like writing. As the years passed, however, the realization that I could make at least some pocket change or 'mad money,' to assist with our limited budget on a fixed income changed that for me. So, now, 7 years into writing here, I am still learning stuff as if I were a newbie! :-(

    I have made (I believe) all of the changes that were suggested to me in the help forum, so now it's just a waiting game. ;-)

  • always exploring profile image

    Ruby Jean Fuller 4 months ago from Southern Illinois

    I see that I didn't read this. I was not following you back then. I see absolutely nothing wrong with your hub. I do see that you gave a lot of good information on caring for an epileptic cat. I write for pure pleasure. I do not worry about SEO, for me, it takes all the fun out of writing. I'm positive that you helped the people who read this piece.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image
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    Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, Ed;

    Thank you very much for your input. I'm so sorry your Dad had to deal with this condition, and also your Lab. It is very heartbreaking to watch a pet suffer this, as you cannot explain to them as you would a person.

    I would ask the vet about the B-12 and thyroid meds--I might still, but at this point, Patches is a very senior kitty, and is lately showing signs that she may not be with us much longer, so all I want to do is keep her comfortable. She is on a medication for some arthritis in her hips, as well.

    Thank you so much again for your contribution!

  • ahorseback profile image

    ahorseback 3 years ago

    Dzy , you certainly don't need my two cents here , this hub is amazing , My Dad had this too, now My chocolate lab "Bud " has it and it absolutely breaks my heart to watch this happen ! It kills me , however the vet gave us thyroid medicine and that helped however .....he had several more and then she told us to get vitamin B-12 Pills [cheap ] and I believe that helped tremendously ! Disguise them with a favorite treat with food !,...Good luck .....Ed

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image
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    Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, FlourishAnyway,

    Thank you so much for your kind comment; I appreciate that. Thank you, also, for your own work in rescuing these wonderful creatures.

    When I got my first cat, the veterinary standard for spay/neuter was set at 6 months of age. In cats, that can be too late, as they can mature that early and start producing litters. I think 2 months is a bit young, but it seems to be the new standard, and they say the kittens bounce back faster.

    I know from watching the "kitten cam" of Foster Dad John (near Seattle, WA), that the kittens are only dopey the day they get back from the surgery, then they're full of vinegar again, while the mom cats always seem to be slower to recover, so I guess 2 months makes sense.

    Thank you so much for the comment, the compliment, the votes and share!

  • FlourishAnyway profile image

    FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

    Aww, Patches is so lucky to have a cat mother as devoted as you are. She is a beautiful cat. I used to do cat rescue, too, and have several "leftover" kitties with disabilities whom I love dearly and whom require special care. I advocate spay neuter but my vet requires the limits you referred to (2 months and 2 pounds). When I had kittens available, I never even showed them until they were spayed and ready to go. Although I probably lost some potential homes that way, the good ones will understand why and will wait. Bless you for the work you do for them. Voted up and more, plus sharing.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image
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    Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hi, Rebecca.

    Wow--a 20-year-old cat. What a wonderful milestone! A seizure might be possible, but it might just be that he loses his balance while scratching, because of his age, just as we all lose some of our coordination with advancing years.

    If you think a seizure is a possibility, I would strongly urge you to see your vet. I know there are downsides to the medications, but kitty can also get hurt in the throes of a seizure, and if you can control or prevent those, you're ahead of the game. In any case, it could be something simple, and you'd set your mind at ease by having it checked out.

    Thanks so very much for sharing about your wonderful fur-baby.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image
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    Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, kidscrafts,

    I am glad to meet a fellow cat-lover. It is a sad thing for her, but we love her, and committed to her lifelong care by adopting her, so we just give her all the love we can, and are glad that when her time comes to cross the Rainbow Bridge, she will know she was loved.

    How wonderful that your kitty has been with you for 17 years! That is awesome. Patches colors are in the family called "Tortoiseshell." She is a smoke, or muted "Tortie."

    Thank you so very much for stopping by and your thoughtful comment. You enjoy your weekend as well!

  • Rebecca Furtado profile image

    Rebecca Furtado 3 years ago from Anderson, Indiana

    I think my 20 yr old male Manx may be having seizure. He acts like he is scratching sometimes and then thrashs about. He is never vetted; except to be fixed and one case of urinary crystals when he was eight. I just hate to vet him at this age. He has been more than healthy. I wonder if there is a natural remedy to try. He is so old, I hate to put him on prescription medication. He will be 21 in March.

  • kidscrafts profile image

    kidscrafts 3 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

    I am a big cat lover and I am sad that you cat has epilepsy! It's remarkable that your cat is still alive; she must be around 15 years old. It must be hard for you to see her trying to run away from the seizure; poor thing, it's hard to explain to a child what epilepsy is... imagine a cat! I have a 17 and half years old cat with the same kind of colors than yours; I think those kind of colors show that they Siamese in their ancestors.

    Have a great weekend!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image
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    Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, torrilynn,

    Epilepsy can be a rather serious condition, about which I knew little myself until our kitty was affected. Thank you very much for commenting; I'm pleased you found the article useful. Thanks much, too, for the vote!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image
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    Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, Suzie HQ,

    I'm glad you liked the article. I did try to diligently research what was happening with our poor kitty, and in the process, the memory of my former neighbor's testimony came back to me. I've never witnessed a person suffering an attack, but thanks to my research, I'll be prepared if I ever do.

    I'm sorry you have been stricken with this condition, but it sounds like you're a very positive person who refuses to let it get you down. Brava for that outlook! It just goes to prove that people can do anything they set their minds to doing.

    Patches was 14 years old in Sept. of 2012, and is still hanging in there. Tonight (in Feb. of 2013) she was actually playing a bit...which she does rarely anymore.

    Thanks very much for all the votes and the share!

  • torrilynn profile image

    torrilynn 4 years ago

    DzyMsLizzy, im sorry that your cat has epilepsy. i never knew much about epilepsy or what would or does cause it. thanks for this hub. voted up.

  • Suzie HQ profile image

    Suzanne Ridgeway 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

    DzyMsLizzy,

    What a great job you have done highlighting Epilepsy (which I have had for over 30 years) in both cats and in humans. I was diagnosed with grand mal or tonic clonic seizures when I was 14. Interestingly how you mentioned Phenobarbital as I was on it along with another drug. The Phenobarbital was eventually phased out completely. It was not something I related to little kittens and it must have been so distressing for you not getting help from the medical profession.

    Your pointers in how to deal with seizures is excellent and what people with Epilepsy are not. i have never let it stop me doing most things I love including traveling alone, playing International Sport and living alone at times. Life is for living and your hub is a great alert for pet owners and for people who may suspect Epilepsy in others.

    Voted up, Useful, Interesting, Shared.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image
    Author

    Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, epi--

    Thank you so much for your kind words. I am sure your Little Miss Tiffy and Mister Gabriel are most beautiful, well loved and lovingly spoiled companions for you. Blessings upon you for your love of kitties.

    I realize this is not the most pleasant of topics, but I did want to get the word out. The early spay/neuter policy of most rescue groups now stands at 2 months AND 2 pounds. Run away fast from any outfit that insists on having the procedures done any earlier. This young is still a huge departure from the former standard of 6 months of age.

    Thanks very much again for sharing your thoughts.

    (P.S.--I hope you enjoy the G&S Hub as well.)

  • epigramman profile image

    epigramman 4 years ago

    I was eyeing your Gilbert and Sullivan hub and got distracted by this title and for good reason - I live for my two cats - Little Miss Tiffy and Mister Gabriel - and I was shocked to think this terrible illness could ever happen to a kitten. It certainly wasn't a very pleasant read for me but at the same time an essential one which left me naturally moved but also educated and enlightening.

    Thank you for your loving heart, your sensitive nature and your keen eye for detail and research.

    Sending you warm wishes for your continued health, happiness and prosperity in 2013 from lake erie time ontario canada 4:09pm

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image
    Author

    Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello there, crazybeanrider,

    Long time, no see! How have you been?

    Animals are, indeed, amazing, and capable of so much more than many people give them credit for. I feel for your losses of 2 of your furry friends; I know personally how heartbreaking that is.

    Thanks so much for stopping by and for your complimentary comment. To us, we have not done anything extraordinary--we just love our kitties, that's all.

  • crazybeanrider profile image

    Boo McCourt 4 years ago from Washington MI

    So heartbreaking, I am so glad Patches has such a loving and kind family to take such wonderful care of her. Not giving up on her, giving such passion when most people would have put her down. It is amazing what she has lived through. I have lost 2 of my precious ones, I have a 18 year old who is still strong. I hope Patches has many years yet to come. Thank you for such a compassionate hub.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image
    Author

    Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Helli, midget38,

    Thank you so much. Aww, I'm sorry about your dog--it is so sad, and so hard to watch an animal go through this, as it cannot be explained to them as with a person. It was good of you to look after your classmate; very caring and kind.

    Thanks very much for the vote and share.

  • midget38 profile image

    Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

    This is great, Liz. My dog just had a run in with epilepsy as well. I used to be seated with a girl with the problem in elementary school because the teacher felt I could look after her if she had a problem. The other girls in the class used to make fun of her. She had seizures in class frequently too. This is useful, and shared here on HP.

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