Help! My Cat Has Epilepsy! What It Is, What It Is Not and What Caused It
I Do Not Have Epilepsy
This account is from what you might call 'first-and-a-half-hand' experience, in dealing with one of our cats who had epilepsy since she was a tiny kitten. Regardless of the species affected, the condition manifests in the same ways.
The history on our poor kitty was this:
We adopted her from a rescue organization back in 1998. She was a tiny thing, barely 8 weeks old, and under a pound. She fit in the palm of my husband's hand. She and her siblings had been found, just days old, inside a paper sack tossed into a paint locker at a local school.
The kittens were placed with a foster family to bottle-feed and raise until they were old enough to adopt. One of the litter didn't make it. The others were placed for adoption. Up until that point, the kitten we picked out did not have epilepsy.
I now volunteer with a rescue organization myself, and I know how the system works. If the family fostering the kittens had seen any such evidence, the cat would have been put down, and not put up for adoption.
Most rescue groups enforce an early spay/neuter policy--but not with kittens that young. The current standard for early spay/neuter is a minimum of 2 months and 2 pounds for males; closer to 2.5 pounds for females.
The group I'm with will not display the kittens for adoption until they have reached that point and are already spayed or neutered, or, in special circumstances, they will allow the adoption, but the kitten stays with the foster family until the procedure is done.
Unfortunately, that was not true of this other group, and they insisted she had to be spayed at such a tiny and delicate stage.
The Wrong Anesthesia
According to my veterinarian, a commonly used anesthetic for cats is isoflurane. In looking this up on the Internet, I found that it can cause a marked increase in intra-cranial or cerebro-spinal pressure.
Pressure on the brain often causes brain injury of some kind--it is the reason shunts are installed for conditions such as hydrocephalus, or to relieve pressure from accidental traumas.
Because she was so tiny, the anesthesia had a more pronounced effect, and the end result was some brain damage, which caused her to have epilepsy. We noticed her first seizure after we'd had her home only 2 days.
It was what is called a "petit mal" or "absence" seizure--she simply stiffened up and zoned out, and was "not there" for about half a minute.
It Soon Got Worse
Within a couple of weeks, we saw the onset of grand-mal, or what are now called 'tonic-clonic' or 'generalized' seizures, involving full-body involuntary muscle spasms. These would last anywhere from a few seconds to almost a full minute. Whether you are watching this happen to a tiny kitten or to a child, the feeling of sadness and helplessness is overwhelming.
The poor cat was having these episodes several times a week. It was heartbreaking to see, but at the same time, when she was not in the throes of a seizure, she was a normal. sweet kitty, and nothing else was wrong with her. She had already stolen our hearts, and we could not bear to think of putting her down, as she was not suffering 24/7.
Challenging the Veterinary Medical Profession
The worst part, actually, was getting a veterinarian to listen to reason and convince them of the problem. The vet we had at the time wanted to 'pooh-pooh' the idea that a cat could have epilepsy, and especially that young. He claimed that dogs sometimes start having seizures as they get old, and cats, less often.
The vet responsible for the surgery, further wanted to lay the blame on some obscure birth defect, called a 'liver shunt,' and send her to a university veterinary teaching hospital at great expense for surgery. We declined. You see, my husband had an uncle who suffered from epilepsy, and he knew very well what an epileptic seizure looked like in all of its forms.
It took an entire year of helplessly watching kitty have these episodes before we finally found a vet who listened, and put the cat on appropriate medication.
For many years, the barbiturate, Phenobarbital, was used to help control seizures in people. Some human medications can also be prescribed for animals. In this case, it was the Phenobarbital that was given to the cat, even though for people, it is considered an 'older' treatment that is not much used anymore.
Please be careful!! Not all medicines can cross species lines and remain safe and effective, so please do not self-medicate your pets with any of your own medications!
Always consult your veterinarian.
Helping Kitty Through the Seizure
Current first aid advice for a person having a seizure includes these steps:
- remove or loosen constrictive clothing, such as neckties
- remove items near the person on which they could be injured
- do not attempt to move the person unless their location puts them in danger
- do not attempt to restrain the person's movements
- do not stick anything in the person's mouth
For the cat, it is a little bit different; for one thing, cats don't normally wear clothing, so that is not an issue. However, we we always did try to restrain her, and throw a towel over her head to block light, as bright light seems to prolong the episode.
The reason for the restraint is because a cat has claws, and during the uncontrolled thrashing about that happens, their claws can become caught in the carpet, (or on a sofa) and ripped out. In fact, this happened to her once! We had gone out for an errand, and on our return, found the evidence of a seizure, along with some bloody footprints. Upon examining her feet, we discovered that she'd caught her claws in the carpet, and 2 of them had been ripped out of her paws to the roots! Poor kitty!!
Beware the Bite!
During the seizure, while we were holding her and watching that her claws did not become ensnared, it was also important that we kept our hands well away from her mouth, as the jaw muscles are also involved, and she would be involuntarily snapping her mouth open and closed.
Be advised that your little pet kitty's jaw can produce enough force to break finger bones! In fact, their bite force amounts to about thirteen pounds of pressure per square inch. Bolstered with sharp teeth, that's plenty to do some real damage! (In fact, adjusted out on a relative per-pound of size basis, a cat bites with more force than the long extinct megalodon super shark!)
In fact, that was a lesson learned the hard way! During one of her early seizures, my husband was trying to help her out of the seizure, and got his hand in the way of her mouth. Her teeth pierced clean through the web between his thumb and index finger, and locked! He is a six-foot, two-hundred pound man with a lot of muscle, and it was hard for him to get her mouth opened to free his hand! Where was I? Outside, cleaning up after the dog we had at the time, so I did not hear him calling for assistance!
We found a few tricks, as well. If we caught her immediately prior to seizing, just starting with tiny little 'body quakes,' if we could pick her up suddenly, tap her gently on the head, or ruffle her fur quite vigorously, it seemed to interrupt the short-circuit in the brain, by giving it something else to process; but once the seizure was full-blown, these things did not work.
If the seizure was longer than normal, we would sometimes carry her to the sink, and run some water over her head. This seemed to have the same effect as the tricks we used in the pre-seizure mode, except that it could bring her out of a full-on seizure.
Her seizures were at that point were fairly well under control with her medications. We got this kitty in 1998, and she was started on the Phenobarbital in 1999. That helped a lot. It reduced the frequency from several times a week to once or twice a month.
As the years went by, however, we began seeing an upswing in the frequency again, to sometimes once a week. In 2003 we moved to our current location, and our new vet added Valium to her regimen. This helped to reduce the frequency back down to once a month or less. Though there were bound to be "break-through" seizures, as I'm sure any human sufferer can attest.
Real Danger for Kitty
The dangerous part for kitty, however, was that she seemed to realize when one was about to hit, and attempted to run away from it. She would frantically run blindly about, trying to climb walls, furniture, anything she could, until the escape failed, and the seizure overtook her.
This is where and why we had to try to intercede and stop the process from continuing, as she had gotten into some real predicaments from time to time that could have turned out very badly. The photo below shows where we found her one morning after searching the whole house. This must have happened while we were asleep, and did not hear her running. Who knows how many minutes or hours poor Patches was stuck in there?!
Some Terrible Predicaments
What Epilepsy Is
The simplest analogy to explain what causes epilepsy is that of a short circuit in the wiring of the brain. A signal starts from point 'A' heading for point 'B' and part way there, hits an open gap, or roadblock, but the signal keeps trying anyway to get through.
This results in the seizure, as the motor control functions are disrupted. In the generalized seizure, the person is likely to fall down, and begin thrashing about uncontrollably. While this is happening, they are probably "not there," it is a sort of unconsciousness; they will not respond to you. Their eyes may be open, closed, or rolling around.
Afterwards, they may be confused, dazed, and very certainly tired and sore. I used to have a neighbor with the condition, and he described coming out of a seizure as feeling as if he'd been run over by a Mack truck; every muscle in his body ached.
What Epilepsy Is Not
People who have epilepsy, whether they were born with the condition, whether it is the result of a head injury, or a medical error, are not any of these things:
- generally handicapped
Please never make fun of someone having a seizure. You may think it looks comical to see someone thrashing about, and for this, I blame Hollywood for exaggerated send-ups of various conditions. It is not funny, and it is not a joking matter.
For the person going through this, not only is it physically draining and uncomfortable, it can also be very humiliating, as there is also the potential for loss of bladder and/or bowel control. After all, those functions, too, are controlled by the muscles.
This happened to Patches; right near the end of her seizures, she would almost invariably lose bladder control. This is another reason we moved her, to improve the chances of this happening in the bathroom instead of on the carpet.
- Petit mal seizure: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia
Thorough description of petit mal seizures
- Generalized tonic-clonic seizure: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia
Description of "Grand Mal" seizures
- CDC - Epilepsy - Basics - First Aid
Actions to take when providing first aid to someone having a seizure
- Marihuana and Epilepsy by Tim and Pattie Shellman
If you live in a state with legalized medicinal cannabis use, and suffer from epilepsy, you might want to read this article, and investigate it with your doctor.
I am not a doctor, nurse, or otherwise trained or employed in the medical field. This article is simply an account of my personal experiences in having a pet with the condition of epilepsy. It details research I have done online on my own in an attempt to understand what was happening to our cat.
If you think you or a pet may have this condition, please seek out appropriate medical evaluation and treatment.
Our Dear Patches: Fly Free, Angel Kitty
At the age of 16-1/2 years, on the 25th of March, 2015, our dear Patches had to be helped to cross the Rainbow Bridge.
She had gone down hill suddenly in the last week, and very suddenly on that day, her medications had stopped working very well; she was experiencing multiple mini-seizures throughout the day, and she had lost even the ability to stand up. Her eyes were dilated and unfocused. It was time, and we tearfully said farewell to our beautiful, sweet old girl.
She sleeps the long sleep in a sunny spot in the yard, for she always loved to lay in a sunny window or in a "sun puddle" on the carpet.
© 2012 Liz Elias
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