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7 Neurological Issues in Cats & Common Signs (Vet Answer)

Written by: Dr. Joe Mallat DVM (Veterinarian)

Last Updated on February 26, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team

vet checking up a cat

7 Neurological Issues in Cats & Common Signs (Vet Answer)


Dr. Joe Mallat Photo


Dr. Joe Mallat

Veterinarian, DVM

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

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Cats have a relatively small brain that only weighs about an ounce. But we all know how intelligent cats are, and indeed their brain has all the wiring necessary to carry out countless vital functions, as is the case with our own brain.

A number of different neurological issues can arise in cats. Neurological issues refer to issues arising in the brain, spinal cord, and nerves, which are collectively called the “nervous system”. Both young and old cats can be affected, and these neurological issues can have very serious consequences for the cat’s health.

This article will discuss what signs to watch for, as well as seven common neurological issues in cats.

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Common Signs to Keep in Mind

Neurological issues can manifest in a wide variety of signs. Some are fairly obvious, even to cat owners, such as seizures, wobbliness, head tilts, and tremoring. Less noticeable signs include reluctance to use the litter tray, changes in behavior, dullness, and a tendency to walk in circles. While occasionally a fall or other traumatic event may be witnessed by an owner, this is not always the case, especially in cats that keep to themselves or roam outside the house.


The 7 Neurological Issues in Cats

1. Viral Diseases

Here, we are referring to three viral diseases in particular:

  • Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP)
  • Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
  • Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)

Cats tend to be infected with these viruses at a young age. FIP is caused by an abnormal immune response to a common intestinal virus (feline coronavirus, which is not the same as Covid-19). FIV and FeLV are transmitted by fights with other cats. Although cats are usually infected at a young age, they may not show signs of disease until they are older. These viruses sometimes make their way to the brain and spinal cord, where they cause inflammation.

This can result in seizures, eye problems, spinal pain, and partial paralysis of either two or four legs. While FIV and FeLV are not treatable, new treatment options for FIP are very promising.

a sick cat due to feline infectious peritonitis or FIP
Image Credit: M. Sam, Shutterstock

2. Fungal and Protozoal Disease

The most common fungus to cause neurological problems in cats is Cryptococcus neoformans. Infection with Cryptococcus can affect other organ systems too, including the skin, lungs, and eyes. Signs that a cat’s brain or spinal cord is involved include seizures, sudden blindness, behavioral changes, and back pain; occasionally, wobbliness of the legs will be present. Treatment for Cryptococcosis using a long course of antifungal medication is possible.

The most common protozoal infection in cats is Toxoplasmosis, caused by Toxoplasma gondii. Cats tend to be affected by Toxoplasmosis when they are kittens and often show other signs of disease too. A diagnosis can usually be reached by testing blood and tissue samples, and treatment can be attempted if guided by your veterinarian.

3. Tumors

Far and away the most common tumor in cats is lymphoma (previously called “lymphosarcoma”). This is a tumor made up of abnormal, cancerous lymphocytes, which are one of the main cells of the immune system. Lymphoma can affect not just the brain and spinal cord, but also the bowels, kidneys, lymph nodes, and skin of cats. While more common in older cats, young cats are also affected by lymphoma. If lymphoma is compressing the brain or spinal cord, cats may develop seizures, behavioral changes, back pain, and wobbliness.

These signs can be sudden in their onset, but more often they progress slowly over time. Unfortunately, the prognosis for cats with neurological lymphoma is poor in the long term, though chemotherapy protocols can be undertaken.

a cat with collar after tumor removing surgery
Image Credit: JPC-PROD, Shutterstock

4. Thiamine Deficiency

Thiamine is also known as Vitamin B1. This vitamin is required for carbohydrate metabolism, muscle contraction, and nerve conduction. Cats mainly derive their dietary thiamine from meat. If cats are fed a diet deficient in thiamine, after 2–4 weeks they will start to show signs of neurological dysfunction. Vegetarian diets, raw-fish diets, or cat foods preserved with sulfur dioxide can all cause a cat to become thiamine deficient.

Thiamine deficiency initially causes salivation, loss of appetite, and vomiting, but progresses to cause loss of coordination, rigidity of the head and neck, twitching, seizures, and coma.

5. Injury and Trauma

Trauma is a word vets often use to describe an accident or injury. In cats, the two most common causes of trauma are falls from a height and road traffic accidents. Bite wounds from other cats and gunshot wounds are occasionally encountered. Traumatic incidents can affect the brain, spinal cord, nerves, or all three. Spinal cord injuries are most likely—these are often acute in onset and quite drastic. Loss of function in two or four legs is the main sign, often with pain and vocalizing. While fractures and dislocations of the vertebrae (the bones that house the spinal cord) can be seen on X-rays, CT scans are often required to assess the extent of the injury to the spinal cord itself.

Mild injuries may get better with rest, pain relief, and time. Severe injuries may require surgery. Unfortunately, if pain sensation is lost due to the spinal cord injury, the chances of recovery are extremely low.

Sick cat who suffered an injury of the spine
Image Credit: Anna Krivitskaya, Shutterstock

6. Stroke

Stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain and spinal cord is “interrupted”. In cats, this is usually due to an “infarction” or clot that has become lodged in one of the key arteries, blocking blood flow to the central nervous system. This is more common in cats with underlying heart disease, such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), as the reduced flow of blood enables a clot to form. Another neurological issue that is similar to stroke is “fibrocartilaginous embolism” (FCE). This refers to a piece of cartilage that breaks off from the disk that sits between spinal vertebrae and blocks blood flow to the spinal cord.

An MRI scan is often required to make a diagnosis of stroke and FCE, and the prognosis for affected cats is highly variable.

7. Horner’s Syndrome

Horner’s syndrome affects the eyes and facial muscles, and it is a fairly common neurological disorder in cats. The sympathetic nervous system is the part of the nervous system responsible for day-to-day functions that occur without any thought in cats—blinking, pupil dilation, muscle tone, and many more. The signs of Horner’s syndrome in cats include facial drooping to one side, a constricted pupil in one eye, a shrunken appearance to the eye, and protrusion of the third eyelid (fleshy pink tissue). There are a number of causes of Horner’s syndrome in cats: injuries, abscesses, tumors, and infections of the middle ear.

While the syndrome itself is relatively simple to diagnose, the underlying cause can be trickier to identify.

vet checking a cat with stroke
Image Credit: Gleb Usovich, Shutterstock

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While some neurological issues in cats are obvious, including seizures and wobbliness, others are more subtle. Similarly, while some problems have a simple “fix” such as rest or diet changes, other problems may require surgery or courses of prescription medications. Neurological issues in people are taken very seriously, and they should be in cats too. Early intervention is very important, so don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian if you have any concerns about your cat’s health.

Featured Image Credit: brodtcast, Shutterstock

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