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The symptoms of cat seizures are usually more frightening than harmful. But all seizures require veterinary attention. A study by Schriefl et al. published in the JAVMA journal in 2008 established that while hereditary epilepsy is common in dogs, it’s much rarer in cats. Cats most often suffer seizures due to serious medical conditions. Seizures from an underlying medical condition stop once the cat is healthy again. Epilepsy, however, can’t be cured. But it can be controlled by medication.
While cat seizures may be caused by idiopathic (cause unknown) epilepsy, which isn’t usually life-threatening, they can also be a sign of a critical medical issue. Head trauma, an infection like cryptococcosis, poisoning, reaction to medications or to chemicals like sodium nitrate in pet food, low blood sugar due to diabetes or coccidian parasites, tumors, blood vessel disorders, impaired kidney function or liver disease like hepatic encephalopathy can all cause symptoms of cat seizures.
Cat seizures can sometimes be mistaken for rabies, while sleep movements and cardiac syncope can be mistaken for seizures. Age is one indicator. According to veterinary publishers Drs. Foster and Smith Inc., a cat with epilepsy will have its first seizure around two to three years of age, but seizures rarely occur in younger cats. Seizures due to trauma, poisoning or infections can occur at any age. Timing is another indicator. Seizures are most likely to occur when the cat is excited, such as during play, or during changes in brain activity, such as while waking or falling asleep. Cats may twitch or peddle their feet while sleeping, but they can be easily awakened and the movement stopped. A cat having a seizure can’t be awakened.
A cat seizure passes through three distinct phases, each with its own effects. During the aura stage before the seizure, the cat may be restless, attack or hide from invisible threats, or meow excessively. During the ictus stage, the seizure itself occurs. The cat may fall and will experience rapid, uncoordinated twitching of its legs and other muscles. The cat may also drool, lose control of its bowels and cry out. Following the seizure, during the post-ictus state, the cat may seem disoriented, shaky and restless. The length of each stage depends on the type of seizure and the individual cat.
Drs. Foster and Smith Inc. classify the main types of cat seizures as the petite mal, grand mal and status epilepticus. Symptoms of a petite mal may be as mild as a blank stare and twitching of one leg and will generally last less than a minute. A grand mal, the most common type, causes more severe shaking and may last up to five minutes. A status epilepticus seizure causes symptoms similar to a grand mal, but can last for hours and can be fatal.
Seizures from trauma, infections, chemical reactions and other medical emergencies can be prevented by keeping the cat in a safe environment and getting regular check-ups for chronic medical conditions like diabetes or liver disease. In cats with chronic idiopathic epilepsy, prescription anticonvulsant medication can control the frequency and severity of seizures, but not stop them from happening. These medications may be given if the cat has several seizures a month or if the seizures last longer than half an hour.