Seizures (Feline Epilepsy)

by Dr. Race Foster & Dr. Marty Smith

Seizures can be caused by any insult to the brain such as trauma, infection or a drug overdose. Detectable causes of seizures are those commonly associated with toxins, infections, drug overdose, trauma to the head area, and other metabolic disorders such as diabetes mellitus and kidney or liver failure. In some instances they are inherited. Most seizures in the cat are not due to detectable causes such as trauma, but are caused by idiopathic (unknown cause) epilepsy, a condition veterinarians generally refer to only as epilepsy.

The exact cause of epilepsy is not known, but whether the cause is unknown or trauma induced, the condition results in an uncoordinated firing of the neurons (nerves) within the brain. Normally, the neurons transmit impulses in a uniform and coordinated fashion, allowing for precisely timed movement and thoughts.

During an epileptic seizure, however, the neurons function independently of each other. When the neurons misfire, cats may lose consciousness or become unaware of their surroundings, and have rapid, uncoordinated body movements.

What are the symptoms?

Normally the epileptic cat will have the first seizure between two and three years of age. This time frame may vary, but rarely is epilepsy seen in the very young. Seizures will vary in intensity and are usually described using three terms: petit mal, grand mal, and status epilepticus.

Petit mal seizures are the mildest form. The cat may simply develop a blank stare, shake one leg or cry out in pain. Petite mal seizures usually last less than one minute. Grand mal seizures are the most common. This seizure is characterized by a cat falling to one side, urinating or defecating uncontrollably, paddling the feet as if swimming, frothing at the mouth, and it may also cry out. This cat will be unaware of surrounding activities. Grand mal seizures usually last five minutes or less. Status epilepticus is the most severe form of seizure. It appears exactly like a grand mal seizure, but it may last for several hours - or as soon as the cat seems to recover, it immediately degenerates back into the seizure.

What are the risks?

Epilepsy is a chronic disorder and although usually not curable, it can be controlled. The petit and grand mal seizures, in most cases, are not life threatening unless they occur at a time when the feline is in an unsafe, or uncontrolled environment.

Status epilepticus is a very serious seizure state. With the body convulsing violently for hours, the internal body temperature will become critically high. Organ damage and death can result. All seizure instances should be reported immediately to your veterinarian.

What is the treatment?

In most instances, epilepsy is not life threatening unless status epilepticus develops. Anticonvulsant medications are used in chronic cases. It must be understood that drug therapy does not cure the condition, but rather controls the severity and frequency of the seizures. Anticonvulsant drugs such as Phenobarbital may be used in the cat. Phenobarbital provides a sedative action on the nerves within the brain.

The goal of therapy is to stabilize the nerves and membranes within the brain, but not to a point where the cat appears or acts sedated. Generally, anticonvulsant drugs are not given unless the cat has more than one seizure per month or the seizures last more than half an hour. This is a general guideline only.

(Article reprinted with permission)

© 2000 Drs. Foster and Smith, Inc.
Reprinted as a courtesy and with permission from
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