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5 Common Neurological Problems in Elderly Cats

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By Leslie Ingraham

Published: 05/13/2022, edited: 06/18/2022

Reviewed by a licensed veterinary professional: Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS

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Overview

As cats age, their bodies undergo changes, like  vision, mobility, and behavior problems, to name a few. Rather than assume that our four-legged friend is just getting on in years, we might consider whether these changes are related to how well their brain and nervous system are functioning. While some neurological problems may arise as the cat reaches their elder years, others may be conditions of younger cats that only become obvious as they age. Let’s take a look at five of the most common neurological problems in elderly cats.


Feline cognitive dysfunction

Feline cognitive dysfunction is caused by brain cell deterioration and death. It can be triggered by insufficient blood flow or abnormal substances like certain proteins embedded in the brain and resembles dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in people. The condition disrupts normal neural communication, affecting thought, memory, decision-making, and other cognitive functions. Physical symptoms may appear that relate to the lack of brain-nerve communication with muscles and organs. Feline cognitive dysfunction is most likely to be noticeable in a cat who is older than 10 years of age.

Symptoms

The signs of feline cognitive dysfunction can be found in other brain disorders like tumors or infections, or they may be attributed to aging alone. They might not raise suspicion of dementia at first. Important symptoms of cognitive dysfunction in cats may include:

  • Disorientation
  • Wandering or getting lost
  • Persistent staring
  • Getting trapped in familiar places 
  • Confusion
  • Decreased activity
  • Changes in the sleep cycle
  • Disinterest in food or demanding it at inappropriate times
  • Less interaction with other cats or humans
  • Incontinence
  • Loud and persistent vocalization, especially at night
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Circular pacing

Causes

The cause of dementia in older cats is the degeneration and death of cells in the brain resulting in disruptions of cell communication. The condition may be caused by several conditions:

  • Aging, deteriorating brain cells
  • The presence of certain proteins and other substances in the brain, similar to Alzheimer’s
  • Chronic lowered blood flow to cells 

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of feline cognitive dysfunction focuses initially on symptoms. A complete medical history is needed to reveal when they began, and how severe they were. A veterinarian will observe the cat’s gait, behavior, posture, and ability to walk or stand. Abnormal tail movement caused by nerve damage may be another sign. Tests are performed to demonstrate how well the kitty’s cranial nerves are controlling eye movement, chewing, facial muscles, vocalization, and hearing.

X-ray imaging may reveal other conditions like masses or fractures. A CT scan or MRI is performed to check for soft tissue abnormalities. Blood tests may reveal other causes of the symptoms like inflammation, a metabolic disorder, or autoimmune disease. Examination of the cerebrospinal fluid via a spinal tap may show conditions such as cancer and infection.

Treatment

Treatment first focuses on any underlying condition. However, if an underlying condition has been ruled out, treatment goals include reducing symptoms and improving brain function if possible. There is no treatment to reverse or cure feline cognitive dysfunction, but Vitamin E and antioxidants from food or supplements may be recommended to maintain brain health. The vet may also recommend anti-anxiety medications like pheromone therapy, as well as appetite enhancers.

Pet parents can help their cat adjust by making their home more manageable for them. Senior cat comforts like soft blankets and beds may help reduce anxiety. Cat parents will likely also be advised to keep the feline inside, adhere to a regular feeding routine, make no major household changes, and modify home conditions like lighting and furniture placement to help orient them as much as possible. 

Average cost of treatment:  $150 - $3,000


Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD)

Intervertebral disc disease is not as common in cats as in dogs, but it can develop and progress to a serious condition that causes hind leg paralysis. Older cats are especially prone to symptoms. 

Intervertebral discs are spongy “shock absorbers” between spinal bones, called vertebrae. The discs cushion the vertebrae and increase flexibility. When they become stiff and hardened, as in IVDD, they can restrict movement. If the disc expands into the spinal canal, it can cause nerve irritation with pain in the legs, hips, and neck. This disease may occur in younger adult cats but get steadily worse as the feline ages. 

Symptoms

Pain in the back or neck is the most common symptom. The pain may cause a cat to pull away or lash out when you touch or stroke them. Its location corresponds with the vertebral disc(s) involved. Other symptoms may include:

  • Weakness and pain in the hind legs
  • Unwillingness or inability to jump
  • Muscle spasms in the back or neck
  • Lower activity levels
  • Hunched back
  • Incontinence 
  • Unsteady gait
  • Pain in the chest or abdomen
  • Hind leg paralysis
  • Failure to groom hard-to-reach places
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hiding

 Causes

Intervertebral disc disease symptoms are caused by:

  • Calcified or fibrous discs which can bulge and irritate nerves
  • Degenerative discs in the aging cat
  • Trauma from jumping or falling 

Diagnosis

A neurological exam includes checking reflexes, palpating for pain along the spine, observing the cat’s gait, ability to stand or walk, and pain response in the hind legs.

Ruling out other conditions that cause similar symptoms like cancer, a fracture, or arthritis is an important step in the diagnosis of IVDD. X-rays visualize bones, but to diagnose a disc problem, an MRI or CT scan is needed. Another imaging test used is a myelogram, in which dye is injected into the spinal fluid followed by an x-ray. 

Treatment

Conservative treatment includes restricting the cat’s movements for up to six weeks. After this period of rest, they may gradually increase activity. Medications include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), pain relievers, and steroids.  Muscle relaxants can help reduce painful spasms. Acupuncture may alleviate pain and increase mobility as well.

Surgical treatment involves removal of parts of vertebrae with or without disc excision or repair. The goal is to relieve pressure on the nerves that control movement and sensation. Surgery may be followed by physical therapy.

Average cost of treatment: $500 - $4,000



Stroke

Considered a medical emergency, a stroke in a cat may be the result of bleeding in the brain or a clot obstructing blood vessels and preventing blood from getting to brain cells. Lack of oxygenated blood results in cell death that affects other parts of the body depending on the stroke’s location. Paralysis may occur, especially in the legs, and senses like sight may be affected.  

Although rare in cats, strokes do occur, most often in elderly kitties, though a stroke as a result of trauma is not age specific. Illness in other parts of the body may contribute to formation of a clot, which travels to and lodges in the brain, interrupting blood flow. Conditions which are known to cause clots include heart disease, fractures, surgery, and birthing. Another clot type is one caused by bits of fat or other tissue that get into the bloodstream. Injuries, surgery, and kitten birth can be contributing factors.

Symptoms

Stroke symptoms vary depending on its location in the cat’s brain. Common signs of a stroke include:

  • Disorientation
  • Uncoordination
  • Stumbling
  • Depression
  • Head tilting
  • Behavioral changes
  • Incontinence
  • Paralysis
  • Vomiting
  • Circling
  • Vision loss
  • Sudden collapse

Causes

There are numerous causes of a stroke in cats, including:

Diagnosis

The appearance of any stroke symptoms should prompt a visit to the veterinarian. Be prepared to relay all of the symptoms you observed, including when they occurred. A medical history may also include procedures done or underlying illness.

A physical exam looks for signs of underlying causative conditions. Blood tests include a complete blood count and a biochemical profile. A urinalysis will be performed, and vital signs are taken to detect high blood pressure, heart rhythm issues, or a fever. These are all clues to finding the cause of the bleeding or clot. Parasites may be detected with a fecal sample, and brain imaging enables visualization of soft tissue and the presence of an intracranial bleed or clot.

Treatment

If an underlying condition is detected, treating it is an important part of the plan. The cat must be stabilized and supported with IV fluids and anti-inflammatory medications. 

The veterinarian observes the feline for a secondary stroke. Medications may be used to improve clotting time with careful monitoring. Rarely, surgery to clamp a bleeding vessel or remove a clot may be done if the lesion is close to the surface and accessible.

Average cost of treatment: $500 - $5,000



Epilepsy

Seizures can be caused by a variety of sensory stimuli, or defects in the brain’s neural system. Epilepsy is characterized by recurrent seizures, regardless of their cause. They can follow certain sensory triggers, other diseases, or there may be no recognizable cause. When no reason for the seizures is found, the term used is idiopathic epilepsy. Idiopathic epilepsy is rare in cats, who typically have conditions that are causative. Epilespy won't develop in the senior cat, it usually starts much younger in their life.

Seizures in cats commonly occur during a time when their brain is “switching gears” such as falling asleep, waking up, a period of excitement, sometimes during feeding or play. The resulting strong electrical surges can cause seizures.

Symptoms

Symptoms of epilepsy in cats can become more severe or frequent as the feline ages. Signs include:

  • Growling
  • Disorientation
  • Erratic movement
  • Falling to one side
  • Rigidity and paddling motion in the legs
  • Salivation
  • Incontinence
  • Muscle twitching
  • Limb paddling

Causes

There are many potential causes of seizures in cats, both within the skull and outside it. Here is a list of some of them:

Diagnosis

A seizure should prompt a visit to a veterinarian, who will attempt to determine its cause. You’ll be asked to provide a complete medical history, including the nature of the seizures, when they occur, and how long they last. Blood tests and a urinalysis will be performed, and may be followed by imaging including an MRI or CT scan to examine the brain.

Treatment

If an underlying cause for the seizures is found, treatment for that condition will be initiated. It may include daily anti seizure medicine, supplemental minerals and vitamins, or diet changes. Epilepsy is not curable, and treatment focuses on seizure prevention, symptom management and injury prevention.

Anti-convulsant medication may reduce the number and severity of seizures and may have to be taken for life. Phenobarbitol and potassium bromide are the medications of choice. Pet parents may be educated about how to protect their kitty at home, including what to do if their cat has a seizure. The main objective of home care is regular, scheduled medication and a safe space where the cat won’t get hurt if they’re thrashing or if they fall. Follow-up vet visits are necessary to monitor the medication’s efficacy and blood tests will be performed to ensure the liver is coping..

Average cost of treatment: $500 - $6,000


Meningioma

A meningioma is a benign tumor that grows between the skull and the meninges, the thin coverings over the brain. The tumor may grow enough to press on brain tissue, but it grows very slowly. A meningioma may not cause symptoms, but if the cat exhibits neurological signs and the tumor is in an accessible place, removal with surgery may be done.

Symptoms

Neurological symptoms of a meningioma are dependent on its location and size. Symptoms are caused by pressure between the skull and brain. They may include:

  • Tripping or falling over
  • Seizures
  • Visual impairment
  • Behavior changes
  • Neck and back sensitivity 
  • Sleeping habit changes
  • Changes in eating habits

Causes

There is no known definitive cause for a meningioma in a cat. A condition in younger cats that’s called mucopolysaccharideosis type 1 is thought to be associated with the development of the tumor. Symptoms, however, may not occur until the cat is older and the tumor grows.

Diagnosis

A complete medical history is important to estimate the size and location of the tumor. Movement is an especially critical signpost. The vet will test reflexes and do a complete physical examination. Lab tests may include a blood chemistry panel, and a urinalysis to detect toxins or other substances. 

Imaging is the most accurate method of diagnosing a meningioma. With a CT scan or MRI, the tumor can be visualized easily. The vet may also recommend testing the cerebrospinal fluid via a lumbar spinal tap to rule out infections or cancerous tumors.

Treatment

The aim of meningioma treatment is to prevent symptoms by reducing the size of the tumor or removing it entirely. Surgery may be performed if the tumor is accessible and provides the best result by removing the tumor entirely. However, surgery also carries risks, including infection, bleeding, damage to delicate brain tissues, and anesthesia side effects. 

When the tumor cannot be reached, chemotherapy can reduce the size of a meningioma and stop its growth. If the tumor returns, chemo can be repeated. Side effects of chemotherapy may include nausea and vomiting, fatigue, and dark urine. These are treated with antinausea drugs and steroids, along with plenty of water.

Average cost of treatment: $1,000 - $6,000


Be prepared for anything

If your older cat is at risk of developing a neurological problem, check out our pet insurance comparison tool. See how insurance plans from leading companies like Figo and Healthy Paws compare so you can choose the right policy for your pet! 


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