What are Meningitis?
Meningitis in your cat occurs when the meninges become inflamed. The meninges are a membranous covering of the brain and spinal cord that serves as a protective barrier to both. Meningitis refers to the inflammation of this membrane and is therefore a symptom of a number of underlying conditions. The condition often affects older cats or cats with weakened immune systems. This is a critical medical condition in your pet that requires immediate veterinary care.
Symptoms of Meningitis in Cats
While animals do not vocalize or otherwise exhibit signs of pain or sickness the same way humans do, there are many subtle symptoms that may indicate meningitis in your cat. These may include:
- Lack of appetite
After the initial stages of sickness, as meningitis and inflammation progress, the following more severe symptoms may occur
- Stiffness in the neck
- Light sensitivity
- Unsteadiness on feet
- Muscle spasms
- Behavioral changes
- Head tilt
Causes of Meningitis in Cats
While there are a number of underlying causes of meningitis, the most common is infection. Infection can result from a variety of conditions. Common causes of meningitis include:
- Certain fungal infections in cats with already weakened immune systems
- Fungal infections that may cause meningitis include Cryptococcosis, histoplasmosis, and blastomycosis
- A protozoal infection called Toxoplasmosis
- Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP)
- In rare cases, localized infection in nearby body part (eyes, ears, nose) spreading to the brain
Diagnosis of Meningitis in Cats
In order to diagnose meningitis in your cat, your veterinarian will need to perform a complete physical and neurological exam. At this initial meeting, you should provide your vet with a complete medical and physical history for your cat, including a timeline for onset of symptoms and any escalation of those symptoms. Your vet will then examine your cat for stiffness and will carefully watch their walk or gait to determine whether any telltale symptoms are present.
The most effective methods of diagnosing meningitis will involve blood and urine analysis. A complete blood profile will be run on your cat. This will help determine the presence of any infection and will identify the source and best course of treatment. Increase white blood cells in a blood profile indicate infection. Bacteria or white blood cells may also be present in the urine of cats suffering from infection.
Some veterinarians may order an MRI or CT Scan or your pet’s brain, which will help identify the presence of inflammation. This may also help identify any tumors or bleeding and can also help determine the extent of any damage in severe cases when the disease has progressed.
Finally, your vet may order an analysis of the cerebrospinal fluid in your cat, via a procedure known as a spinal tap. This is perhaps the most accurate method of diagnosing meningitis in your cat. Your cat will need to be anesthetized for this procedure as it involves inserting a needle precisely in order to withdraw fluid from a highly delicate area.
Treatment of Meningitis in Cats
Treatment of meningitis in your cat will depend on the underlying cause of the inflammation. In cases when the immune system has caused an inflammatory response, steroids may be prescribed to counter the symptoms. Long-term steroid use can have serious side effects for your cat and they will need to have regular follow up visits with your vet in order to ensure proper organ function.
If the underlying cause of meningitis is infection, your cat will be treated with one of a number of different antibiotics. The type of antibiotic will depend on what type of organism has caused the infection. While the antibiotics are taking their course, your vet may also choose to prescribe drugs that counter severe meningitis symptoms. These may include drugs that prevent muscle spasms, pain relievers, or other medications that make your cat comfortable. These types of medications may also be prescribed long term if there has been severe and irreversible damage to your cat’s nervous system as a result of prolonged inflammation.
Recovery of Meningitis in Cats
In most cases, prognosis for long-term recovery and quality of life is good in cats with meningitis. Appropriate treatment with a course of antibiotics should clear up underlying infection and reduce inflammation rapidly. As inflammation decreases, your cat’s symptoms will drastically subside.
In severe cases when symptoms occurred for a prolonged length of time, permanent damage may have been inflicted on your cat’s nervous system. Depending on the severity of the damage, many symptoms of nervous system damage can be mitigated with appropriate medications. Some mild symptoms of damage may recede over time or your cat may learn to adapt to altered capabilities.
Overall, your cat’s recovery from meningitis will depend on your adherence to your veterinarian’s medical advice and medication schedule for your cat, and on how quickly you are able to obtain medical treatment for your pet.