Cerebellar Hypoplasia in Cats
Cerebellar hypoplasia is a neurological disorder that kittens can be born with. It is also known as “wobbly cat syndrome” or even “spastic cat syndrome” depending on the severity of the symptoms. But what exactly is cerebellar hypoplasia? How do kittens get it and how can it be prevented? Read on to answer these and other questions about this condition.
Causes of Cerebellar Hypoplasia in Cats
The cerebellum, which translates as “the little brain,” is the part of the brain (in both cats and humans) that helps monitor and control aspects of both voluntary and involuntary movement. Although it’s not technically part of the brain, it is still considered part of the central nervous system. It receives all kinds of information from the vestibular, or balancing part, of the middle ear down to the bottom of the paws or feet helping to establish where the body is in space - e.g. up from down - and this information helps determine how the body should move.
Although the exact cause of cerebellar hypoplasia is unknown, it is clear it has to do with the development of the cerebellum during pregnancy. It takes a long time in utero for the cerebellum to develop which makes it particularly vulnerable for things to go wrong. When something does go wrong during the pregnancy, a kitten can be born with cerebellar hypoplasia.
The most common cause occurs when a pregnant cat is exposed to the panleukopenia virus, also known as the feline distemper virus - either out in the environment (from other cats) or even from the vaccine.
Although it’s an extremely important vaccine, the panleukopenia vaccine contains a modified live virus as opposed to a killed virus. This is one way an unborn kitten can contract the disease. The panleukopenia virus seems to attack cells that are dividing rapidly during the last few weeks of pregnancy and even into the first few weeks after birth. It’s possible the entire litter may be affected, or just one or two of the kittens.
Symptoms of Cerebellar Hypoplasia in Cats
The signs of cerebellar hypoplasia are very characteristic. The kitten will walk wobbly and uncoordinated. The severity of the symptoms is directly related to the amount of damage done to the cerebellum in utero. The symptoms may not become apparent until a kitten begins to walk, as the cerebellum helps to control purposeful or voluntary movement or coordination.
A kitten will oftentimes stand or walk with a wide stance to help with balance, and the jerky movements may become worse when it tries to play or is bending over to eat/drink from a bowl. They can appear weak, as they may use a wall for support, but it’s actually just a lack of coordination. Walking, running, sitting, and playing are all affected. There may be head bobbing and trouble focusing on objects such as food/water bowls and litter pans, so it quickly becomes a “quality of life” issue.
The good news is that cerebellar hypoplasia is neither painful nor progressive, meaning it doesn’t tend to get worse as the kitten ages. Furthermore, the kitten affected is not contagious to other cats or kittens since it is a congenital condition. (A congenital condition is when something happens during the pregnancy to cause some sort of birth defect.)
How is cerebellar hypoplasia diagnosed?
The diagnosis of cerebellar hypoplasia is usually accomplished simply by observation during a physical exam. There are no laboratory tests to diagnose it, however, performing them may be used to help rule out other conditions. An MRI may show an underdeveloped or small cerebellum.
Treatment and Home Care for Cats with Cerebellar Hypoplasia
There is no cure or treatment for cerebellar hypoplasia, but as noted before, the symptoms will not worsen. With some help, many kittens will learn to live with their disabilities. They should be kept indoors as their ability to protect themselves outside will be greatly compromised. They should be spayed or neutered since cerebellar hypoplasia is also considered a genetic disease, and it can be passed down to future litters of kittens.
They should not be declawed as they will need their nails to help grasp onto things like carpeting or rugs. Nails will help them gain traction and will also help with balance. Using a large litter box with shorter sides will make crawling into and out easier. Also using raised food and water bowls will help with their ability to eat and drink.
How to Prevent Cerebellar Hypoplasia in Cats
The prevention of cerebellar hypoplasia couldn’t be simpler...Vaccinate! Vaccinate! Vaccinate!
The vaccine used to protect cats against panleukopenia, aka feline distemper, is considered a core vaccine. This means it is recommended for all cats except for pregnant female cats. It’s important to NOT vaccinate pregnant cats, so when in doubt, wait a month or so to see if a cat is pregnant. (The length of time for a feline pregnancy is right around 9 weeks or 63 days.) After the kittens are delivered, it’s best to wait another month or so before vaccinating the mother.
When to Contact a Vet
If you’re noticing your kitten or cat having any sort of shaking, trembling, or wobbling, you should plan to call your vet, as an exam is now a good idea. You can book a video call with us at FirstVet to get an initial assessment of your cat and to help determine if any follow-up might be needed.
Click here to schedule a video consult to speak to one of our vets. You can also download the FirstVet app from the Apple App Store and Google Play Stores.