Seizure-based aggression in cats

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by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

Rarely, a cat will develop a focal seizure in a part of its brain that oversees the function of aggression. The clinical picture is that of a cat which, for no apparent reason, suddenly starts to launch savage attacks toward its owner(s). Following an attack, cats remain in a heightened state of agitation for quite some time and during that time are likely to attack again. However far down the road — unless the cat is successfully treated – additional attacks are likely to happen, sometimes weeks or months later, after a period of relative normality. People can suffer from partial seizure-related aggression, too, and in them the condition goes by the name “episodic dyscontrol.” In dogs, the same condition is commonly referred to as “rage” and is notorious in some breeds.

The faintest trigger, like a piece of paper blowing around or someone putting on their shoes, will cause an affected cat to launch into attack mode. Sometimes approaching them in a certain area of the house, a loft in one case, will set them off. The hallmark of partial seizure-related aggression in any species is a sudden violent attack following trivial or even no obvious motivation. Attacks may be preceded by an aura of altered mood – perhaps the cat not acting right or seeming “off” – and are often followed by period of tiredness or reclusiveness. There is no rhyme or reason to such attacks but stress seems to make them more likely – for example, having a lot of people around for a celebration.

One cat I treated viciously attacked its owner as she cleared some wine glasses off the back deck. She know something bad was going to happen before the formerly loving cat flung itself at her from behind, ripped her silk shirt and put deep claw marks down her back. Scared to remain in the house with the cat, she went to stay with a relative overnight only to return the next day to find the cat in the same evil mood. In time, the cat settled down but, as predicted, another similar event occurred before too many weeks had passed. The final straw for the owner came when the cat became so vicious that she had to enclose it in a room and could not enter the room even to provide the cat food or water for fear of another attack. Eventually an animal control officer managed to snag the beast and it was brought to our hospital. Here we managed to feed the cat an anticonvulsant drug, phenobarbital, and after a few days all was well. I worried that the medication might not hold the cat in check long term – but it did. There were no further attacks for as long as we followed the cat’s progress, and that was over several years.

Another beloved cat suddenly attacked its male owner’s head as he sat on a couch watching television. Needless to say, he was mightily unnerved. I brought that cat into a room in my home to give the owner a break and to start it on the same medication. At first, the cat tried to claw and bite anyone approaching it –namely me or my veterinarian wife – but over time, as the medication soaked in, the cat began to act more rationally. I sent this cat home on medication but the owner was so rattled that he kept it in a separate room and had his brave landlord slip food and water around the door. It took months for this owner to get back his courage but today the cat is back to being her sweet self and her owner adores her. He did try reducing the dose of the medication once or twice but each time could sense and see the demons returning. The cat remains on medication.

Another man from a local big city apartment who had a similar experience sat in our consulting room and sobbed like a child because he loved his cat dearly and yet clearly could not live as a target of its newly-developed ferocious aggression. Once again, it was phenobarbital to the rescue and the cat returned to normal. I could go on, but you get the picture.

If a cat acts savagely toward its owner, it’s not necessarily seizure-based aggression. Another common cause of a cat’s sudden meltdown and fury toward the nearest living thing is redirected aggression. I have discussed this condition on this website before. With redirected aggression there is often a known trigger – an outside cat striking fear into the resident cat or, in other cases I have seen, the presence of a new born baby or a hysterical dog spinning in circles on the owner’s back deck. Even if a trigger is not clearly identified, a cat’s skittish behavior on sight of outside cats or other strange encounters, can lead to a reasonable surmise as to what likely went on the day of the meltdown. Also, redirected aggression responds to different treatment, certainly not to anticonvulsant therapy.

Considering that partial seizures, simple or complex, are more common than grand mal (tonic-clonic) convulsive seizures in people, it is hardly surprising that other mammalian species might experience them, too. People with this type of seizure can verbally report the bizarre sensations they experience during an attack, thus clueing the doctor in and confirmatory studies of brain wave patterns by EEG (electroencephalogram) is common practice in human medicine. I doubt that any cat with such aggression has ever been studied using this technology so doubt always exists as to the precise cause of the inexplicable mood swings described in cats. Non-believers in partial seizures – the naysayers – would explain their position by saying that cats so affected do not lose consciousness “so how could it possibly be a seizure.” The point they miss is that consciousness is not necessarily lost during partial seizures, almost by definition in the case of simple partial seizures. The way I see it, if a cat displays such violent aggression for no known cause and responds really well to standard treatment for seizures, then the seizure diagnosis is pretty much confirmed. My favorite saying – if it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, a quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck – is applicable here. The good news is that there is help for these disturbed cats. Euthanasia or surrender need not be the only option.

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