What is Cerebellar Hypoplasia?
There is a stigma surrounding special needs animals from all walks of life, whether adoptions are stymied by a pet’s “physical restriction” or the concern of an emotional or mental exhaustion from both pets and parents alike, below are some “frequently asked questions” and “common myths/misconceptions” about special needs pets!
What is “cerebellar hypoplasia?”
Cerebellar hypoplasia is a developmental condition in which the cerebellum of the brain fails to develop properly. The cerebellum is the portion of the brain that controls fine motor skills, balance and coordination. The condition is not painful or contagious.
What causes it?
Cerebellar hypoplasia most commonly occurs when a pregnant cat becomes infected with feline panleukopenia virus and passes the infection to her unborn kittens. The panleukopenia virus preferentially attacks rapidly dividing cells. During the perinatal period (i.e. in the last weeks of pregnancy and the first weeks after birth) the cerebellum is undergoing rapid growth and development, making it vulnerable to attack by the virus. The condition may only affect one kitten in a litter, or may involve all litter mates.
What are the symptoms?
Since the cerebellum is responsible for purposeful movement and coordination.The severity of the symptoms depends on how much of the cerebellum was affected and at what stage in its development the infection occurred.
Symptoms included (but are not limited to):
- Jerky/Incoordinated Walking
- Swaying Side to Side when trying to walk
- Goose-Stepping Walk (“hypermetria”)
- Mild Head Tremors and/or intention tremors
Left: CH Cat “goose stepping” in comparison to non-CH cat (on right).
Intention tremors may be present when the cat walks, and may usually become more pronounced when the cat tries to do something more involved like playing with toys or bending over to eat/drink out of a bowl.
Is this a progressive condition?
A “CH” cat isn’t going to get worse over time, but it also is not going to get better either. Cerebellar cat’s learn to live with their conditions and adapt which can give their owner’s the misconception they are “improving”. Things such as hydrotherapy and physical therapy can help a CH cat adapt to their disability.
Are there any other causes of this condition?
It is possible that a kitten could develop cerebellar hypoplasia if its mother is severely malnourished during her pregnancy or if the kitten suffers a physical trauma to its brain during the period of time when the cerebellum is developing. Other inflammatory diseases of the brain such as toxoplasmosis infection may cause similar symptoms. However, the most common cause of this condition by far is infection with panleukopenia virus.
How is this condition officially diagnosed?
Cerebellar hypoplasia cannot be detected using routine laboratory tests. In some cases, an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) may show that the kitten has a smaller than normal cerebellum.
What is the treatment?
Since the condition is caused by a lack of development of the brain, there is no treatment.
How can this condition be prevented?
This disease can be prevented by vaccination of female cats against panleukopenia prior to pregnancy.
Is this condition painful or contagious?
Kittens with cerebellar hypoplasia are not infectious to other kittens or cats, are not in any pain, and will learn to adapt to their disability over time.
CH cats CAN live with non-CH cats!
It may take some time (and patience!) for a non-CH cat to get used to a CH cat’s body language, since CH cats do not move like ordinary cats, but CH cats can be integrated into a household just like any other cat!
For the severe CH cats, home made “feeding stations” can help steady and position your CH cat while they eat.
CH cats have a normal life expectancy
CH is NOT a life-shortening condition. Although their lack of coordination can increase their risk of injuries, it does not predispose them to any other illnesses.
CH Cats & Anesthesia– Is it safe?
YES! Anesthesia IS safe for cats with CH! The cerebellum (though not fully functioning in CH cats) is not a part of the brain that is responsible for processing anesthesia drugs/medications. There is always a small risk associated with anesthesia but there is no more risk in CH cat’s than any other cat. It is estimated that approximately 1 in 100,000 animals will have some sort of reaction to an anesthetic agent. This risk does NOT increase for cats with CH, but DOES increase if your cat is not well. To reduce the odds of something going wrong while your CH cat (or any of your pets!) are under anesthesia you will want to ensure you take your cat to a full-service veterinarian and have the following completed prior to putting your pet under anesthesia:
- Complete Health History— identifying any risk factors or medical conditions (like CH), current medications/supplements (this includes OTC medications!), responses/reactions to any previous anesthetic events.
- Full Physical Examination
- Blood Work— to ensure your pet’s major organs are functioning properly, check kidney/liver functions and there is no sign of infection.
Confirm your pet will be CONSTANTLY monitored while under anesthesia–
Not all veterinarians/clinics provide constant monitoring of your pet’s vital signs while they are under anesthesia. You will want to ensure that your vet will be monitoring your CH cat and closely monitor the entire anesthesia process:
- Blood Pressure
- Blood Oxygen Level
- Exhaled Carbon Dioxide Level
- Heart Activity (EKG)
(Side Note: If your veterinarian/clinic is AAHA accredited, you can take comfort in knowing that your pet will be monitored during surgery and will be providing above and beyond quality care throughout the entire process! For additional information on AAHA hospital’s in your area visit www.aaha.org)
Do CH cats require extra work?
Depending on the severity of CH (mild, moderate or severe), they can require little to no extra care, or if they are severe they will need help going to the bathroom or eating. CH cats can be more prone to things like broken nails or chipped teeth (again depending on severity).
Can CH cats live outdoors?
NO! CH cats must be inside-only at ALL times due to the fact that they cannot run or properly defend themselves from predators. Due to the fact they are uncoordinated they would struggle to hunt, protect themselves or avoid dangerous situations.
What causes blindness in cats?
Cats can be born blind due to birth defects, mother’s exposure to diseases/chemicals or due to inbreeding. Others can go blind due to untreated eye infections, cataracts, glaucoma, high blood pressure, brain trauma, diabetes, old age, eyelid agenesis (under or non-developed eyelids) or scarring that is caused by entropion (eyelashes that grow inwards).
Most of these conditions are treatable by your veterinarian. If your cat starts showing signs of blindness or sight loss, take your cat immediately to your veterinarian. Some causes of blindness can be reversed or progression halted if caught early enough.
How do blind cats find their way around?
They rely on memory, smell, sounds and textures to navigate their way around. They judge distances with the help of their whiskers. They will often times climb onto an object such as a couch or bed for the first time, and once they memorize the distance you will see them jumping up and down with ease. Their sense of smell, hearing and touch are much more heightened than other cats.
Can blind cats live outdoors?
NO! It is extremely imperative that blind cats are strictly indoor cats! They are extremely vulnerable to outdoor predators, need consistency in the layout of their environment (unlike the unlimited platform of living outside– it never stays the same! From the various seasons, smells etc) and would be more likely to become victims of accidents, vehicles, attacks etc.
Blindness and feline herpesvirus– sounds terrifying! How does this happen?
Feline herpesvirus (FHV-1) often rears its ugly head in the form of upper respiratory symptoms in your cat (congestion, eye/nasal discharge, coughing/sneezing) and can “flare up” these particular symptoms whenever they are stressed (introducing a new pet, moving, a serious change in their routines etc.,), they also can simply be “carriers” in which they show no symptoms but pass along the feline herpesvirus to other cats.
Feline herpes, also known as FVR (feline viral rhinopneumonitis) and FHV-1 (feline herpesvirus type 1) is an infectious disease known to affect only cats (it is NOT contagious to humans or other animals that are not felines). The virus is a major cause of upper respiratory infections as well as conjunctivitis (swelling of the tissue around the eyes).
How is FHV-1 and blindness related?
Ocular infection with FHV-1 is extremely common in cats. Most cats are exposed as kittens and kittens may even become infected by the mother at birth! Thus, they may become infected even before their eyes have opened. Ocular signs show coupled with upper respiratory signs– ranging from eye discharge, swelling and squinting. Ocular ulcers may also occur (in which it almost looks like scar tissue on the eyeball), this causes serious damage to the surface of the eyeball and causes blindness.
How can I help my blind cat?
- Do not move the food/litterbox
- Do some scent marking: it may be helpful to “scent” important objects (litterboxes, cat trees, bedding etc) for your blind cat with strong odors such as peppermint to help its nose “see” what it is looking for.
- Avoid rearranging furniture: Blind pets memorize and “mind-map” the house, moving things around will confuse the cat.
- Safeguard dangerous zones: Pad the sharp edges of furniture with bubble wrap, block off steep stairways with baby gates to prevent falls.
- Use your voice to guide your cat: Get in the habit of speaking to your cat when you enter or leave a room to help your cat keep track of your whereabouts.
- Create a safe spot in each room: To avoid tripping over the pet that is always underfoot, provide a safe, comfy bed in each room.