Epilepsy in cats

Epilepsy is a medical condition that causes recurrent seizures or fits in cats. Around 1 in 500 cats in the UK have more than one seizure. One quarter of these have epilepsy. It’s most common in adult to middle-aged cats. Severity, treatment and outlook depend on the underlying cause. 

Seizures happen when there’s an uncontrolled flare of electrical activity in your cat’s brain. Epilepsy means your cat has repeated seizures. Seizures look scary, but they’re not painful, and they usually only last a minute or two. However, your cat may seem sleepy and out of sorts for several hours afterwards. Seizures are exhausting. They can damage both the body and the brain if they last too long or happen multiple times in a short period of time. There’s no cure for epilepsy. However, with veterinary care and daily medication to prevent seizures, many cats continue to enjoy a full and active life at home.



What is epilepsy in cats?

Epilepsy in cats is caused by an abnormality of the brain.

This abnormality causes seizures, which may be general (whole body) or partial. Not all cats who have an unexplained seizure have epilepsy. Cats may have a single seizure and never have another in their lifetime.

There are 3 types of epilepsy in cats:

Idiopathic Epilepsy

  • Causes seizures without structural changes in the brain or an obvious cause
  • Much less common than in dogs.
  • Is an inherited (genetic) disease in dogs. Less certain in cats.

Structural Epilepsy

  • Seizures where there is damage to the structure of the brain
  • Causes of damage include head trauma, inflammation of the brain (FIV, FeLV, Toxoplasmosis, FIP, Rabies, meningitis), a stroke, a brain tumour or a birth defect

Epilepsy of unknown cause

  • A structural cause is suspected but not identified with testing



Symptoms of epilepsy in cats

There can be up to four stages associated with epilepsy in cats:


Early warning phase or ‘Prodrome’

Some cats develop behaviour changes in the hours or days before an epileptic seizure.

Symptoms are vague and variable but can include:

  • Restlessness
  • Attention-seeking
  • Anxious behaviour

Vets call this the ‘prodrome’.


Immediately before the seizure – the ‘Aura’

Shortly before a seizure, cats may experience an aura. Signs, if present, are the same as the prodrome.


The seizure or ‘Ictus’

Seizures in cats can be focal (partial) or whole body (complete or generalised).

Symptoms of a focal or partial seizure include:

  • Twitching face muscles and trembling
  • Drooling
  • Rapid running
  • Dilated pupils
  • Passing poo or wee

Symptoms of a whole body seizure:

  • Becoming unsteady, losing balance
  • Falling over, with stiffened muscles
  • Becoming vacant or unconscious
  • Lying on one side and jerking their limbs
  • Drooling saliva
  • Making chomping and biting movements
  • Passing faeces (poo) or urine (wee) without being aware of it

Seizures usually only last for a minute or two.

Focal seizures may rapidly develop into full body ones.

Prolonged seizures are dangerous.

Call  your nearest vet immediately if your cat’s seizure has been going on for longer than 3 minutes


After a seizure – the ‘Post Ictal phase’ 

After a seizure, your cat may be:

  • Aggressive
  • Disorientated
  • Very hungry and thirsty
  • Seeming blind or deaf
  • Looking wobbly or ‘drunk’

This is known as the post-ictal phase. Ictus is another name for a seizure. It’s best to leave your cat to recover safely and peacefully in their familiar surroundings until this passes.

There can be many other symptoms of ‘full’ or ‘partial’ seizures.



Are some cats more at risk of Epilepsy than others?

  • Epilepsy is most common in adult to middle-aged cats
  • Breed, size and sex don’t affect the likelihood of epilepsy in cats

Are my Family and other pets at risk?

Epilepsy is caused by an abnormality in the brain of an individual cat.

It cannot spread between cats or from cats to their owners and other pets in the household.



How is epilepsy diagnosed?

There isn’t a single test for epilepsy.

Vets gather information and use the following tests to find the cause of seizures:

  • History: your account of what happened and your cat’s general health
  • General and neurological examination: checking things like balance and eyesight
  • Blood and urine tests to check for liver or kidney disease, low blood sugar or abnormal electrolyte (salt) levels. All of these can cause seizures. Finding a cause like this means the seizure is not idiopathic epilepsy
  • MRI or CT scans: vets may recommend a closer examination of your cat’s brain using advanced tests to check the brain’s structure.
  • Tests on samples of fluid taken from around the brain, called the cerebrospinal fluid or CSF.

These tests may reveal a cause of Structural epilepsy.

Idiopathic epilepsy is diagnosed when cats have repeated seizures and tests don’t identify an underlying cause.


Vet treatment

How do vets treat cats with epilepsy?

Although the disease cannot be cured, with the right medication and veterinary care, many cats with epilepsy can go on to live full and active lives. The outlook will depend on what caused the epilepsy.

Outlook is best for cats with idiopathic epilepsy (unknown cause)


Emergency treatment in practice

In emergencies, vets inject sedatives and anti-seizure medicine directly into your cat’s veins to control seizures.

An emergency is a seizure which lasts more than 3 minutes or happens repeatedly in a short period.


Prescription treatment for Epilepsy at home

Longer-term treatment for idiopathic epilepsy includes:

  • Anti-seizure medicine given daily as tablets or liquid
  • Emergency medication for at home treatment of seizures lasting more than 3 minutes

Medicine by mouth for epilepsy:

First-line choices:

  • Phenobarbitone
  • Potassium Bromide
  • Imepitoin

Additional medication is prescribed if your cat’s seizures aren’t controlled well enough by the above:

  • Levetiracetam
  • Zonisamide
  • Gabapentin


Emergency treatment at home

If your cat has epilepsy, your vet may give you medicine to use at home to control seizures which go on too long.

  • Rectal Diazepam – given into your cat’s bottom for rapid effect


Home treatment

Caring for a cat with epilepsy at home

There are no home remedies for epilepsy in cats

Cats with epilepsy need lifelong treatment with prescription medicine from a vet.

Medication for epilepsy can have side effects. If your cat is being treated for epilepsy, they will need to see a vet for regular check-ups. This should be at least every 6 months.

Regular check-ups include:

  • Identifying frequency of seizures and any changes in general health
  • Physical examination
  • Blood tests
  • Checking levels of phenobarbitone
  • Checking for evidence of liver damage or other health concerns


Tips for living with a cat with epilepsy:

What to do if you think your pet is having a seizure

  • Stay calm
  • Turn down the lights
  • Keep the room quiet
  • Try not to touch your cat during the seizure
  • Remove children and other pets from the room
  • Keep your cat safe from injuring themselves
  • Care! Avoid risk of injury if aggression is part of your cat’s seizure

Call your nearest vet if your cat’s seizure is lasting more than 3 minutes 

Speak to a vet if your cat has more than one seizure in a day.

How can you tell if a seizure is about to happen?

Some pets with epilepsy show changes in behaviour in the time leading up to a seizure. This is the and may happen up to an hour or even several days before the seizure itself.

You may learn to recognise these cues in your cat and be able to create a safe environment.

For example:

  • Turning down the lights
  • Turning off the television or music
  • Turning off the heating – pets can overheat during seizures
  • Covering hard corners and edges of furniture with cushions
  • Taking other pets and children to a different room

These steps will reduce stimulation of your pet’s brain. This helps to reduce the electrical stimulation feeding into the seizure.

If seizures happen regularly, your vet may prescribe a sedative medication to give into your pet’s mouth or bottom. This medicine may be used either for:

  • Controlling a seizure lasting longer than 3-5 minutes, or
  • Reducing the severity of a seizure (or preventing it completely) if an aura allows you to recognise when a seizure is about to happen.



Can epilepsy be prevented?

Idiopathic epilepsy can’t be prevented or cured.

  • Give prescribed medication from your vet at the right time and the prescribed dose
  • Don’t give supplements or herbal remedies without consulting a vet. Even herbal treatments can have side effects
  • Prioritise regular check-ups with a vet.
  • Keep to the same diet or consult a vet if changing your cat’s usual diet, Changes in diet can alter the effects of medication.


When to worry

When should you be worried about your cat with epilepsy?

Call your nearest vet if:

  • Your cat’s seizure is lasting more than 5 minutes
  • Your cat has collapsed
  • Your cat has had more than one seizure in 24 hours

Joii can help with advice on:

  • Recognising the signs of a seizure
  • Keeping your cat safe during a seizure
  • Your cat’s recovery from a seizure
  • Investigating causes of seizures
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