This article aims to explain the details of cerebellar hypoplasia in cats: this is the term that is used to describe an anatomical deformity of a kitten’s brain that leads to abnormal movements and gait.
These kittens may be described as having “wobbly cat syndrome” or “CH cats”: they have been born with a serious physical abnormality. This neurological disorder can affect cats and dogs, but there are different underlying reasons in different species.
What, Precisely, Does Cerebellar Hypoplasia Mean?
Cerebellar hypoplasia means that a kitten has a smaller than normal cerebellum, which is a key part of the central nervous system, located at the back of the cat’s brain. The cerebellum provides the semi-automatic control of body movements, allowing animals (and humans) to move around in a coordinated way without having to consciously think about every small movement.
In particular, the cerebellum controls fine or delicate movements. If the cerebellum is smaller than normal, the kitten cannot move around in a normal, smooth, coordinated way.
What Are The Symptoms Of Cerebellar Hypoplasia?
Clinical signs of feline cerebellar hypoplasia are caused by an inability to move around in a normal coordinated way. Affected kittens do not have fine motor skills: they have a general lack of coordination, they cannot walk normally, and they cannot hold their head still and steady like a normal kitten. Signs may vary, from very mild to very severe.
Affected kittens are often smaller than their siblings because of malnutrition they are unable to suckle normally on the mother cat due to their physical disability.
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Specific signs can include head tremors and head bobbing , ataxia (loss of balance) with swaying rather than standing still, hypermetria (a jerky walk, lifting the feet too high when walking, almost like “goosestepping”), holding the feet wide apart in a base-wide stance, trembling all over, and in particular, so-called intention tremors (when the kitten tries to do something, their body gets especially shaky).
Some kittens have other concurrent abnormalities of the brain (such as hydrocephalus) which can lead to a different and possibly confusing combination of different neurological signs.
What Causes Cerebellar Hypoplasia In Cats?
Cerebellar hypoplasia is a congenital anomaly i.e. a kitten is born with a smaller or otherwise imperfect cerebellum.
This can rarely be caused by a hereditary genetic mutation (i.e. inherited) or a one-off mutation in the womb, but it is most commonly caused by something external interfering with the development of the cerebellum in late pregnancy.
The most common cause is infection of a female cat in late pregnancy with feline panleukopenia virus (feline distemper, or feline parvovirus), although it can also be caused by other factors during this stage of pregnancy (the cerebellum forms during the last three weeks of gestation). Unborn kittens are affected in utero by this virus or by some other toxin or agent, and this part of their brain is prevented from developing normally.
Kittens who are infected with panleukopenia virus in the first three weeks of life may also develop cerebellar hypoplasia, as the cerebellum continues to develop in early life after a kitten has been born.
Vaccination of pregnant cats with a live virus vaccine can also lead to development of cerebellar hypoplasia, so this important aspect of preventive pet health needs to be planned carefully to avoid this type of complication.
How Common Is Cerebellar Hypoplasia In Cats
Cerebellar hypoplasia is rare in kittens now. It used to be more common, before widespread and effective vaccination against feline panleukopenia was carried out, because of the link between this virus and the condition.
Could Cerebellar Hypoplasia Indicate Anything Else Worrying Is Going On In Cats?
No. Cerebellar hypoplasia is just a physical abnormality of a kitten, and it does not indicate that anything else is wrong with a kitten. Affected creatures are usually normal otherwise, with the same meow, purr and charm of any other kitten.
Are Some Cat Breeds More Likely To Have Cerebellar Hypoplasia
No. This is not a breed-linked condition.
Diagnosis Of Cerebellar Hypoplasia
When a kitten shows the signs listed above, cerebellar hypoplasia may be suspected, and you need to take your kitten to your DVM veterinarian for a consultation. Your veterinarian may suspect cerebellar hypoplasia from a simple physical examination.
A definitive diagnosis of the problem would require advanced diagnostic imaging such as a CT or MRI scan but due to the cost, this is rarely done in practice. These scans demonstrate the diminished size or altered structure of the cerebellum.
Treatment For Cerebellar Hypoplasia
There is no specific treatment for cerebellar hypoplasia.
The best that can be done is to adapt the kitten’s environment to allow it to move around safely. Non-slip flooring and low-sided litter trays may be used, and low sided water bowls and food bowls should be offered.
Kittens need to be kept indoors as their lives would be at risk if going outside and encountering hazards or threats due to their poor mobility.
It is important to spay or neuter affected kittens as the stress caused by sexual hormones and behaviour would aggravate the condition.
It is important to monitor affected kittens’ quality of life to ensure that they do not suffer. If they live healthy lives and happy lives, then the issue is one that can be managed.
What Is The Prognosis For Cats With Cerebellar Hypoplasia?
Cases of cerebellar hypoplasia need to have a restricted lifestyle but otherwise they may be able to have a normal life in many ways. They cannot live as outdoor cats, and they may not be able to use a litter box normally.
They cannot jump down from high places in the same way as a normal cat. Some affected cats can live in family homes, while others need special care, living in animal shelters as special needs cats or “disabled cats”.
Cerebellar hypoplasia is a rare condition that affects some kittens from birth. Treatment is not usually possible, and while some mildly affected kittens may improve with time, affected animals usually need some sort of special care for their lifetimes.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can cats develop cerebellar hypoplasia at an older age?
Cerebellar hypoplasia is a developmental condition that happens while this part of the brain is developing (last three weeks of pregnancy and first three weeks of life) so it cannot develop in an older cat. It is, of course, possible that other types of cerebellar disease (e.g. tumors, hemorrhage) may rarely develop in cats at any age, causing similar signs of cerebellar malfunction.
Are there other similar abnormalities that can affect cats?
There are many possible congenital abnormalities of the bones of cats including other types of brain disease (e.g. hydrocephalus). This is why it is important to take any kitten with abnormal mobility to a veterinarian to have a proper diagnosis made.
How long do cats live with cerebellar hypoplasia?
Cats with mild cerebellar hypoplasia often adapt to their disability and can live for many years.
How do you treat a cat with cerebellar hypoplasia?
No specific treatment is available but a cat’s lifestyle can be adapted so that their lack of coordination does not adversely affect their quality of life too seriously.
Are cats with cerebellar hypoplasia happy?
Depending on the severity of the condition, many affected cats have very happy lives.
Is cerebellar hypoplasia fatal in cats?
This is not a fatal problem, and it is not progressive.