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What Is Wobbly Cat Syndrome? Causes, Symptoms, and Care Tips

Though there are a few things that can make a kitten wobbly, the top consideration will be a condition known as cerebellar hypoplasia. This article will take a look at the other potential causes of wobbling and will dive deeper into what cerebellar hypoplasia in cats is and how it can be managed. Remember, a little clumsiness and balance loss is perfectly normal in the first few weeks of life, and most kittens will quickly grow out of this. For those who do get a cerebellar hypoplasia diagnosis, they can go on to live a relatively normal life.

What is wobbly cat syndrome?

Feline cerebellar hypoplasia occurs when the brain does not develop as it should during the fetal period. As the cerebellum's job is to control balance and coordination, those with an underdeveloped cerebellum will struggle to stay upright and can find it hard to control their movements. Though a kitten's movement may seem stiff or jolted, this is not a painful condition. As this is a developmental disorder, it is not infectious and cannot be 'caught' from a wobbly cat.

Causes of wobbly cat syndrome

Most often, we are dealing with a viral cause when a kitten is born with cerebellar hypoplasia. The causative virus is known as the feline panleukopenia virus, also known as feline parvovirus or distemper. When the mother cat is infected, the developing kittens' brains are targeted by the virus, which leads to underdeveloped cerebellum. Interestingly, some kittens from the litter may not be affected.

When presented with a young kitten struggling with their balance, a vet is going to be suspicious of an underdeveloped cerebellum. However, there are other possible reasons for balance problems in young cats, including:

  • Malnutrition during pregnancy and nutritional deficiencies
  • Trauma in utero or in early life
  • A recent toxin ingestion (e.g., a plant or moldy food)
  • Toxin buildup due to liver or kidney disease (caused by, for example, a liver shunt)
  • Middle or inner ear disease
  • Toxoplasmosis
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Symptoms of wobbly cat syndrome

You may notice that the affected kittens are acting differently from the others in the litter from as young as two weeks of age. How severely affected a kitten is will depend on what stage of development they were at when the virus occurred and what proportion of the cerebellum was targeted. Some of the more common signs are:

  • Trembling and tremors of the head (with no head tilt). These may be more pronounced when a kitten is scared.
  • Dizziness and uncoordinated walking. For some, this will affect their ability to use their food and litter bowl, so be aware of your cat needing a little extra help.
  • Staggering and swaying when standing still.
  • Difficulty jumping and misjudging jumping distances.
  • Taking exaggerated steps, like a show pony. This is called 'hypermetria.'
  • Tremors and head bobbing when trying to eat or drink. This is known as 'an intention tremor.'

Living with a wobbly cat

Cats who have had neurological disorders since birth can often cope quite well with them, and caring for a wobbly cat is quite doable for most owners. Importantly, this condition is non-progressive, meaning signs do not worsen with time and your kitten should be able to adapt to their signs, as it's all they've ever known.

Making their life easy

Whether you've bred the kitten or you're adopting a cat with special needs, you'll want to be sure you're making life as easy as possible for them. There are several important things to consider to ensure they're happy and comfortable. This includes:

  • Maintaining a safe environment that is easy for them to navigate. This should mean as few fall risks as possible, and putting some cushions down under windowsills and ledges.
  • Providing softer floors like carpets, as they are preferable to tiles or wood when a cat is constantly falling over. They are also far less slippy.
  • Raising up the food and water bowls and ensuring they're heavy and not easily knocked over.
  • Keeping your cat as an indoor-only cat, or providing a fenced-in patio or garden. Allowing them out puts them at great risk of injury.
  • Using grippy surfaces, non-slip mats, and ramps within the home to help them get around with ease.
  • Giving them access to at least two large litter trays. They should have high walls to lean against and a big enough 'door' to allow easy entering and exiting.
  • Being extra patient. These kitties need a whole lot of love and care and they do require more of your time and intervention than the average cat.
  • Accessing regular vet care for them. This will mean check-ups once (or more) a year, ensuring they're vaccinated and neutered and keeping them up to date with their wormer.

Diagnosis and treatment

Though an experienced owner may already suspect a diagnosis of cerebellar hypoplasia when they are presented with a wobbly kitten, seeking a professional diagnosis is always important. This is because there are disorders that can mimic this condition. We'd also want the vet to assess the kitten, ensuring there are no other congenital or inherited defects.

Diagnosis

It is best to see your vet at the first suspicion that there is something wrong, which may mean going when the kitten is only a few weeks old. The vet will check the kitty, looking inside their ears and performing a neurological exam. They may also suggest some basic lab tests, such as a blood test and urine test. These tests can help rule out conditions such as ear infections, liver shunts, and toxoplasmosis.

Though imaging of the brain would be needed for an official diagnosis, in practice, this is rarely done as it is costly and requires an anesthetic. If the presenting history and signs are suggestive of cerebellar hypoplasia, the cat will likely be diagnosed based on this.

Treatment

Sadly, there is currently no cure or treatment for this condition. Still, most cats can lead fulfilling lives and require a little extra loving care from their dedicated owners and some slight changes to their home environments.

It is sensible to have these cats insured, particularly as they can be more prone to injuries.

For a small number of patients, they may have very severe or advanced symptoms that significantly affect their ability to eat, walk, and toilet. In these situations, putting them to sleep may be the kindest option.

With early diagnosis and a loving and understanding home, these cats should go on to do well. Though they will always have symptoms, they learn to live with these. These cats can enjoy a great quality of life with the right care plan in place.

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