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What Causes Epileptic Seizures in Cats?

Epilepsy in cats is rarely diagnosed, largely because seizures can occur for many reasons.

Melvin Pena  |  Mar 26th 2015


Editor’s note: March 26 is Purple Day, which is designed to raise awareness about epilepsy. People are encouraged to wear purple clothing or accessories.

Can cats suffer from epilepsy? Yes, but while it is rarely diagnosed in dogs, a proper diagnosis of epilepsy is even rarer in cats. As a result, general veterinary practitioners may have little hands-on experience with epileptic seizures in cats. Let’s define our terms, then, as precisely as we can, since “epileptic” is used more out of descriptive convenience than diagnostic specificity.

Vet listens to kitten of breed of scottish straight by Shutterstock. ‘>

Vet listens to kitten of breed of scottish straight by Shutterstock.

When we say “epileptic seizures,” we mean a repeated instance of seizure activity in a cat, typically and properly associated with a brain disorder. Seizure activity must occur regularly and follow similar patterns and behaviors to be considered epileptic. Seizures in cats occur for a wide variety of reasons and due to an equally vast number of causes. Let’s take a broad look at the potential sources and causes of cat seizures.

What are epileptic seizures in cats?

Epileptic seizures in cats happen when there are a series of uncontrollable electrical impulses in the brain. Strictly speaking, there are two forms of epileptic seizures in cats, referred to as primary and secondary. Primary epilepsy, also known as idiopathic epilepsy, is a recurrent issue associated with any number of disorders in the nervous system. Secondary epilepsy, also known as symptomatic epilepsy, is linked to feline seizure activity related to faults, failings, or disorders in any other system that bring about seizures in cats.

Bengal cat by Shutterstock. ‘>

Bengal cat by Shutterstock.

How is epilepsy in cats diagnosed?

Primary feline epilepsy is very rarely diagnosed, and usually only when all other potential secondary causes of cat seizures have been ruled out. The diagnostic process is costly, both temporally and financially. There is no single or simple way to determine whether a cat is suffering from epilepsy. A battery of tests are involved in diagnosing what is causing a cat to have seizures. Blood work is usually the first step, along with urinalysis, brain scans, and MRIs.

What causes seizures in cats?

There are many reasons why a cat may be having recurrent seizures, and the true cause can be difficult to determine conclusively. While epilepsy in cats is an infrequent diagnosis overall, it is the more common. A range of medical conditions can affect a cat’s brain and yield the conditions for cat seizures. Feline infectious peritonitis, feline immunodeficiency virus, feline leukemia, and toxoplasmosis, all the way to rabies and parasite infestations: Each of these disorders and diseases can cause seizures in cats, or behaviors associated with seizure activity.

Funny cat by Shutterstock. ‘>

Funny cat by Shutterstock.

Faults, failings, or deficiencies in any of a cat’s vital systems, from the heart and lungs to the kidneys or liver, can cause seizures, or the behaviors linked to seizures, to recur. Those are just some of the internal causes of seizures in cats. There are any number of external or environmental causes of feline seizures as well.

As in dogs, head traumas can lead to cat seizures, sometimes weeks after the injury is sustained. Poisoning due to exposure to common household items, from cleaning products to rodent- and insect-control chemicals, can also cause seizure symptoms in cats. Further, reactions to bee or wasp stings can give rise to behaviors that resemble seizures.

British shorthair sitting in a bath by Shutterstock.’>

British shorthair sitting in a bath by Shutterstock.

Cat seizure symptoms

A cat seizure may last anywhere from a few moments or seconds to several minutes. No matter the symptoms, it is essential that if you observe any of these phenomena, you make careful note of the “what,” “where,” and “when,” as well as how long an episode lasts. These may be critical bits of information for your veterinarian in determining the “why” and “how.” Just as there is a litany of causes for epileptic seizures in cats, there is likewise a huge variety of potential symptoms.

Angry cat by Shutterstock. ‘>

Angry cat by Shutterstock.

Symptoms of seizures in cats can be grouped as physical and behavioral. Physical symptoms include rapid opening and closing of the mouth, inexplicable chewing — on a cat’s own body, toys, furniture, or on you, should you try to interfere — along with unusual or excessive drooling. And these are only the oral signs. A cat’s limbs or head may twitch and convulse or go rigid during a seizure. Their eyes may become unfocused and the cat become disoriented, to the point of falling down.

What can be done?

Should a seizure occur in the night, you may also find that a cat has involuntarily evacuated her bowels or bladder. When a cat’s seizure ends, the cat may go immediately (or within minutes) back to business as usual. The longer a seizure episode lasts (or if she experiences several in a day), the more critical it is to seek veterinary attention as soon as possible. Treatment options, including medication, depend on a veterinarian’s most informed diagnosis. 

Veterinarian with surgical mask examining a cat in medical office by Shutterstock. ‘>

Veterinarian with surgical mask examining a cat in medical office by Shutterstock.

I am a researcher and a writer, not a feline neurologist; the information presented above is an encapsulation of what I have learned during that research. If your cat is having recurring seizures or seizure-like activity, please make detailed and careful notes of what you observe, including the areas of your cat that seem most afflicted. The more information you can give your cat’s veterinarian, the more quickly and precisely the vet can begin the attempt to determine a cause and, if possible, a course of action.

Learn more about cat health with Catster:

About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a 16-year-old cat named Quacko, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.