“Robotic Cat” Disease Has the U.K. Buzzing


An article in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery has veterinarians and cat lovers across the United Kingdom concerned.

The report documents an account of 21 cats in northeastern Scotland that have fallen prey to a strange illness. The felines have been showing up at two clinics, one in Huntly and one in Alford, when they began walking with an odd, stiff-legged gait, with their tails rigidly extended behind them.

When I first saw this video of a cat with “robot cat disease,” I was reminded of the gaits I’ve seen in people with neuromuscular diseases like Friedrich’s Ataxia.

The illness itself doesn’t seem to be fatal, but it is progressive. Over time, some of the cats’ quality of life deteriorated so much that their caretakers opted to release them from their suffering.

The scientists’ findings, based on microscopic examination and other tests, suggested that the cats’ problem might be an infection of the central nervous system, but they couldn’t find the pathogen that caused it. So it’s pretty much back to square one.

The only commonality in the Scottish cats’ lifestyles seems to be that they’re indoor-outdoor cats in the same rural area who presumably hunt rodents and birds in the course of their travels. Researchers say it’s possible the causative agent was transmitted from prey to predator.

“We have looked for the presence of viruses in the brain and so far we’ve been able to rule out vast numbers but can’t find the one that’s causing it,” says Danielle Gunn-Moore, a professor of feline medicine at Edinburgh University.

Although the affected cats’ lifestyles might not have much in common, the symptom profile does. The disease doesn’t show up until the cats are well into their adulthood, progresses slowly, and produces the same clinical signs — a stiff walk, stiff tail, head forward with ears erect and chin slightly down — in all sufferers.

Who knows how many other cats have this disease — or how many cats have died from it? The only reason we know anything about it at all is that 21 cats had owners who were willing and able to take them to the vet. For all we know, there could be hundreds of other cats that have suffered: feral cats or cats that “just wandered off” from their homes, for example.

And if this disease has a long latency period, as the late age of onset suggests, how many other cats have the illness but simply haven’t begun showing symptoms yet?

One reader posting in the comments section of the London Daily Mail‘s article on the bizarre disease says his cat suffered from the same illness — same symptom profile, same delayed onset. Others wondered if the cats’ condition could be a prion disease like bovine spongiform encephalitis (Mad Cow Disease). Interestingly, the US Centers for Disease Control page on prion diseases does say that there is a feline variant of BSE — called, naturally, feline spongiform encephalitis.

I’m sure the researchers have investigated this possibility, particularly since BSE was such a huge catastrophe in the UK during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

For now, let’s keep hoping the researchers can come up with a solution so that any other cats appearing with this disease can get appropriate treatment.

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