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Cerebellar Hypoplasia in Cats: Our Vet Explains the Causes, Signs & Treatments

Written by: Dr. Emma Chandley, BVM MRCVS (Veterinarian)

Last Updated on February 29, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team

Cerebellar Hypoplasia in Cats: Our Vet Explains the Causes, Signs & Treatments


Dr. Emma Chandley Photo


Dr. Emma Chandley

Veterinarian, BVetMed PGCertSAS MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Feline cerebellar hypoplasia is a neurological disorder that affects kittens while they are growing in the womb. It is a congenital disease and affected kittens have issues with their balance. They often struggle to walk, run, and jump. The disorder occurs due to an interruption in brain development when the kitten is developing in their mother’s womb. The part of the brain responsible for fine motor skills, spatial awareness, mobility, and coordination—called the cerebellum—is affected.

The clinical signs of this disorder mean it has been given the nickname “wobbly cat syndrome.” Read on below to find out more about this condition.

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What Is Cerebellar Hypoplasia in Cats?

Cerebellar hypoplasia is a developmental condition affecting the cerebellum in the brain. It occurs in kittens usually when they are in their mother’s womb and happens when the mother cat gets infected with a virus called feline panleukopenia virus when she is pregnant. The virus is then passed onto her unborn kittens and the cerebellum of the kitten fails to develop properly. The cerebellum is responsible for controlling balance, fine motor movements, and coordination. Clinical signs may not become apparent until the kitten attempts to stand up and walk on their own. Clinical signs vary in severity depending on what stage the mother was infected in the pregnancy.

The brain damage that occurs is permanent. However, it is not a painful or contagious condition. The disease does not progress or get worse over time.

beautiful pregnant cat
Image By: Jim Polakis, Shutterstock

What Are the Signs of Cerebellar Hypoplasia in Cats?

Due to the location of the disease, kittens affected with cerebellar hypoplasia have problems with mobility and coordination. It can be difficult to diagnose initially as signs will become apparent only when the kitten starts to stand up and move around. The severity of the signs largely depended on how much the cerebellum was affected and how far along in the pregnancy the queen was when the infection occurred.

Signs will have a neurological nature and may include:
  • Wobbly gait
  • Swaying when trying to walk
  • Loss of coordination
  • Tremors
  • Wobbly/shaking head
  • Hypermetric gait (goose-stepping)
  • Struggling to go from sitting to standing up and vice versa

Kittens often display something called intention tremors. This is where they are concentrating on trying to do something complicated such as playing with a toy or trying to eat or drink out of a bowl. Their head will start to shake uncontrollably—this is an additional result of damage to the cerebellum.

What Are the Causes of Cerebellar Hypoplasia in Cats?

One of the main causes of this disorder is the infection of the queen with panleukopenia virus while she is pregnant. If the mother cat has not been vaccinated, and she is exposed to the virus while pregnant, there is a high chance she will become infected. If this happens, she will pass the infection onto her kittens. They will then be at a high risk of developing cerebellar hypoplasia.

Other possible causes include:
  • Poor nutrition leads to malnourishment during pregnancy
  • Direct injury or trauma to the kitten’s brain when it is still developing

Infections such as toxoplasmosis cause very similar signs.

How Is Cerebellar Hypoplasia Diagnosed in Cats?

Diagnosis in cats is usually based on clinical signs and history. There is no specific blood test that confirms cerebellar hypoplasia, however, if CT or MRI are available, this can sometimes confirm the presence of a smaller cerebellum than usual. Your vet will assess your kitten and give them a thorough physical exam. They will watch them at rest and also observe them moving around. They will pay special attention to how the kitten moves from standing up to sitting down and vice versa.

There are other diseases that can cause issues for young kittens, so your vet may choose to do blood tests and urinalysis to rule out other causes.

cat being observed by a female veterinarian
Image By: David Herraez Calzada, Shutterstock

How Do I Care for a Cat with Cerebellar Hypoplasia?

Sadly, there is no cure for this condition. Due to the fact that it is a developmental failure of part of the brain, the damage is permanent and cannot be reversed. Kittens with cerebellar hypoplasia usually live a fairly normal lifestyle. It doesn’t normally have an effect on the length of their life. Some steps can be taken to manage the kitten’s environment to reduce the risk of injury.

It is not recommended to let a cat with cerebellar hypoplasia go outside on their own as, since their movements are so uncoordinated, they may hurt themselves. They are also less likely to be able to defend themselves or run away if they are attacked by another cat or other predator.

What Is the Prognosis for Cats with Cerebellar Hypoplasia?

Kittens that are born with cerebellar hypoplasia usually go on to live long and healthy lives. The disease is not a painful condition in any way so there is no undue suffering as a direct result of the disease. Kittens with the disorder cannot pass it onto any other cat or human so they don’t need to be isolated or kept away from other cats.

If your cat has very severe clinical signs, some adjustments may be required in your home to help them live more comfortably. For example, if they are constantly losing their balance, it may be wise to keep them somewhere they can’t hurt themselves if they fall over. Certain types of feeding bowls may be preferable; for example, ones that are raised so that they are at a higher level to help the kitten eat and drink more smoothly.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the usual life expectancy of a cat with cerebellar hypoplasia?

Cats with cerebellar hypoplasia have a perfectly normal life expectancy. The disorder does not progress or worsen throughout their life. Some small changes can be made to their environment to help them day to day and prevent them from getting injured. Kittens usually learn to adapt over time, and some don’t need any extra help at all.

Is cerebellar hypoplasia a painful condition?

Cats and kittens affected with cerebellar hypoplasia are not in any discomfort from the disorder. It does not cause any pain as it only affects the cerebellum which controls balance, fine motor movements, and coordination.

Image By: rock the stock, Shutterstock

How can cerebellar hypoplasia be prevented?

If a mother cat is exposed to the feline panleukopenia virus during pregnancy, it is difficult to prevent the disease. However, if owners ensure that their cats are vaccinated against feline panleukopenia virus, this will stop kittens from getting infected in utero.

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Cerebellar hypoplasia is a neurological disorder affecting cats. There is no treatment for it as the brain damage sustained is permanent. Affected cats live relatively normal lives although some adjustments to their environment may help with management. The incidence of cerebellar hypoplasia would be greatly reduced if more people had their cats vaccinated.

Featured Image Credit: Casey Elise Christopher, Shutterstock

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