Ataxia in Cats: When Balance Takes a Backseat

Do you ever wonder why cats always land on their feet? It’s because they have an incredible sense of balance. But what happens when that balance is compromised? Ataxia, a condition that affects a cat’s coordination and balance, can make even the most graceful feline stumble. In this article, we’ll explore the different types of ataxia, its symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment options. So, let’s dive in and learn more about this intriguing condition that affects our furry friends.

What Is Ataxia in Cats?

Ataxia, simply put, is a loss of coordination and balance that affects a cat’s head, limbs, and/or torso. It is caused by a decrease in sensory function of the nervous system, which can be a result of various diseases. Cats can experience three main types of ataxia: vestibular, sensory, and cerebellar.

Vestibular Ataxia

Vestibular ataxia occurs when the vestibular system, located in the inner ear and brainstem, fails to maintain balance and a sense of “up and down.” Cats with vestibular ataxia may exhibit a head tilt, leaning, falling, and rolling, as they struggle to find their bearings. If the brainstem is affected, cats may appear extremely drowsy or sedate.

Sensory Ataxia

Sensory ataxia is typically caused by lesions in the spinal cord, especially spinal cord compression. Cats with sensory ataxia have difficulty perceiving the position of their feet in space, leading to symptoms such as knuckling of toes and crossing of legs.

Cerebellar Ataxia

The cerebellum, responsible for controlling fine motor movement and motor strength, is involved in cerebellar ataxia. Cats with this type of ataxia display uncoordinated movement of their limbs, torso, and head. They may have a wide stance, take exaggerated steps, and experience head and/or body tremors and torso swaying.

Symptoms of Ataxia in Cats

An ataxic cat may resemble a drunkard, with a wobbly gait, swaying, and increased drowsiness. Some cats may exhibit milder symptoms, such as a slight head tilt or curling toes while walking. Nystagmus, an abnormal eye movement, is also common in cats with ataxia and is caused by underlying issues with the central nervous system. Cats experiencing sudden onset ataxia often roll or fall to one side and may suffer from significant nausea due to the unsteadiness. However, cats with chronic ataxia have generally adjusted over time and are less likely to experience nausea.

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Causes of Ataxia in Cats

Ataxia can be caused by a wide range of factors, depending on whether it is vestibular, sensory, or cerebellar. While some cases may defy diagnosis even with extensive testing, it is crucial to rule out as many causes as possible to establish an effective treatment plan.

Causes of vestibular ataxia in cats include:

  • Infections, especially feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) or fungal infection
  • Inflammatory/immune-mediated causes
  • Toxicity
  • Middle or inner ear infection
  • Metabolic disorders
  • Cancer, polyps, or tumors
  • Trauma
  • Idiopathic (unknown cause) vestibular disease

Sensory ataxia in cats can be caused by:

  • Degeneration of the spinal cord and nerves over time
  • Loss of blood flow to an area of the spinal cord due to stroke-like events or bleeding blood vessels
  • Birth defects causing malformed spine or vertebrae
  • Compression/damage to the spinal cord due to tumors, abscesses, trauma, swelling, or bleeding in the spinal canal

Causes of cerebellar ataxia in cats include:

  • Degeneration of cerebellar tissues
  • Inflammation, often of unknown origin
  • Thiamine deficiency (less common nowadays due to balanced commercial cat food)
  • Structural changes such as underdevelopment or malformation of the cerebellum, often seen when the mother cat was infected with panleukopenia virus while the kitten was developing in the womb (cerebellar hypoplasia)
  • Brain tumors
  • Infection or inflammation in the brain
  • Metronidazole toxicity caused by high-dose administration of this antibiotic

Miscellaneous causes of ataxia in cats include anemia, insufficient oxygen reaching the brain due to cardiac or respiratory disease, electrolyte disturbances, and hypoglycemia.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Ataxia in Cats

If you notice signs of ataxia in your cat, it’s crucial to seek veterinary care promptly. Your vet will take a thorough medical history and perform a comprehensive physical examination to assess any neurological abnormalities. Once the type of ataxia is identified, further testing such as blood work, urinalysis, radiographs, and advanced imaging may be necessary to determine the underlying cause.

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Treatment for Ataxia in Cats

The treatment of ataxia depends on its underlying cause. For example, if an infection is identified as the cause, specific antibiotics may be prescribed. In cases of idiopathic ataxia (without a known cause), supportive care is essential. This may involve medications to alleviate nausea and keeping the cat in a safe, padded environment to prevent injury while they are symptomatic. In severe cases where eating and drinking are difficult, assisted feeding and intravenous fluids may be necessary. Sadly, some types of ataxia cannot be cured, and supportive care is recommended to maintain the cat’s quality of life. However, idiopathic ataxia may resolve on its own and never recur. Cats that have had ataxia since birth may not require treatment, but their environments should be made safe to prevent falls or injuries.

Ataxia in Cats: FAQs

  • Q: Can ataxia in cats be cured?

  • A: The cure for ataxia depends on its underlying cause. While some cases can be treated effectively, others may require supportive care to manage symptoms and maintain quality of life.

  • Q: Can ataxia in cats be prevented?

  • A: Ataxia caused by certain medical conditions or birth defects may not be preventable. However, providing a balanced diet, regular veterinary care, and minimizing exposure to toxins can reduce the risk of some types of ataxia.

  • Q: Is ataxia contagious between cats?

  • A: No, ataxia itself is not contagious. However, some infectious diseases that can cause ataxia may be contagious, so it’s essential to practice proper hygiene when caring for sick cats.

In Conclusion

Ataxia in cats can be a challenging condition, affecting their coordination and balance. While the causes and treatments vary, timely veterinary attention is crucial. By providing proper care and support, we can help our feline friends maintain their quality of life and find their balance once again.

For more information, visit Katten TrimSalon, where our team of experts is dedicated to keeping your beloved cats healthy and happy.