Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
My male cat is about 6 years old and just within the past couple of days, he has been acting like his balance is off kilter. I put him down off of my bed and he just kind of fell over to his side and laid in that same spot for a very long time. Since then, he has his eyes closed most of the time or squints, and he paws at things that aren’t there and has just been acting very strange ever since. He went outside yesterday and never came back in last night, even when called, which is extremely strange being that he’s never done that before. I was thinking something terrible happened or there was something really wrong with him and he went off to pass away somewhere. He showed back up this morning but he’s still acting very delusional, weak on his legs like he can’t walk, and stumbles and staggers everywhere he does go. Please help!
Siouxsie: There are three common reasons why a cat might have these symptoms: Poisoning, a head injury, or an inner ear infection.
Thomas: Poisoning is the first thing we’d think of. A lot of pesticides, particularly organophosphates–commonly used on crops and lawns–cause neurological symptoms like ataxia (staggering and falling), as well as drooling and even seizures in severe cases.
Dahlia: If your cat had been acutely poisoned, you’d have known it right away. There’d be no question that something was really, really wrong, and we’re sure you would have run him to the emergency vet if he’d been having symptoms like convulsions, drooling, and vomiting the minute he came back.
Siouxsie: Cats can consume these pesticides if they walk across a lawn and get the poison on their fur. When they groom themselves, they’ll lick the poison off and it will get into their bodies that way. If the pesticide has been applied recently, it could still be aerosolized (in the air) and your cat could have breathed it in.
Thomas: Certain plants and human medicines can cause staggering and hallucinatory effects on cats, too. Cats’ bodies don’t handle medicines like humans’ and dogs’ bodies do, and the side effects can range from weird to outright fatal.
Dahlia: Marijuana and alcohol can also poison cats, causing staggering and hallucinations. Mama says marijuana is considered a mild hallucinogen for humans, and if a cat eats or is somehow exposed to marijuana, the hallucinogenic effect is a lot more severe.
Siouxsie: We’re not accusing anybody of anything, mind you! We’re just telling you about a few things that could be causing your cat’s symptoms.
Thomas: Your cat could have gotten a head injury if, while he was outside, he got hit by a car or took a fall from which he couldn’t rescue himself. Head injuries can cause neurological symptoms because the brain swells when there’s a severe blow to the skull. Sometimes a head injury can cause a blood clot to form in the brain, which will put pressure on the brain as well.
Dahlia: Cats with head injuries may squint because they’re in severe pain or because they’re having vision problems as a result of the injury. Staggering can also be caused by vision problems or the fact that the cat’s balance was messed up by the brain injury.
Siouxsie: The third possibility is that your cat has a vestibular disease–also known as an inner ear infection. There are tiny fluid-filled canals deep inside the ear which enable the cat to control his balance. If these canals become swollen or damaged due to an infection, it can hurt a cat’s balance.
Thomas: Whatever the cause, you need to get your cat to a veterinarian for assessment and treatment. If he’s been exposed to chemical poisons, find out where he might have gotten into them. If you live near a large farm, park, or golf course, find out when they’re spraying insecticides and keep your cat indoors. If your neighbors use insecticides on their lawn, ask them to let you know when they’re having the exterminators over so you can keep your cat inside.
Dahlia: Mama says that around here, when a person in the neighborhood is going to have their yard sprayed, the exterminators put little yellow signs by the road that show the date the pesticide application is going to take place.
Siouxsie: You might also want to have your home tested for possible toxins. If you live in an old house, you may have lead paint issues. Chronic lead poisoning can lead to neurological symptoms because it can cause encephalitis (swelling of the brain).
Thomas: If your cat has gotten a head injury, your vet will give your cat medications that will help the swelling go down and maybe give you some medicine to help manage the pain.
Dahlia: If your kitty has an infection, your vet can give him antibiotics which will clear it up.
Siouxsie: Good luck, Chelsey. Please let us know how things turn out.