What does an epileptic seizure look like in cats?

Epileptic seizures are a result of abnormal and excessive electrical activity in the brain. Feline epilepsy can manifest itself in many ways, depending on the location and strength of the abnormal electrical signals in the brain.

Typical signs you may see in a pet experiencing an epileptic seizure include;

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Twitching & involuntary movements
  • Rigid legs initially, then paddling or running movements
  • Urination or defaecation
  • Salivation and mouth “chomping”

Seizures usually abruptly start and finish, although you may notice your pet behaves differently before and after a seizure.


What to expect, before, during and after a seizure

Pre-ictal (Before a seizure begins)

The pre-ictal phase is the phase prior to the seizure and can be associated with a change in behaviour, such as anxiety or agitation. It can last several hours or even a couple of days.

In cats, this phase is often hard to see, either because it is absent or because the signs are too subtle. During this phase, cats may be unsettled or nervous, seek constant physical contact with their owners or even shirk human presence and hide away.


Ictus/Ictal phase (During a seizure)

Ictus is the second phase and corresponds to the seizure itself. It is when the excessive abnormal electrical activity occurs in the brain, which results in the signs that are seen during the seizure (such as involuntary movement). The ictal phase is usually very brief, lasting less than 2 minutes.


Postictal phase (Following a seizure)

The final stage of a seizure, the postictal phase, is when the brain recovers its normal function after the seizure.
During this phase, cats may be tired and confused. They may also be disoriented, anxious or even aggressive. Some cats experience increased appetite and thirst. Some cats may experience temporary difficulty with their vision (such as transient blindness), balance and walking.

The duration of the postictal phase varies between cats, from a few minutes to a few days.


Different types of epileptic seizure

The clinical signs of epilepsy vary between individuals. Generally speaking, there are two main types of seizure.


Partial/focal seizures

Focal epileptic seizures occur where a localised region of the brain is experiencing abnormal electrical activity. In general, these seizures last a few minutes.

Focal seizures are a common in feline idiopathic epilepsy. They cause various signs depending on the area of the brain affected, such as altered consciousness (e.g., staring into space), muscle movement (jerking one or more limbs, craning neck, chewing, facial spasms etc.), excessive salivation, dilated pupils, tremors and behavioural changes (chasing imaginary flies, vocalisation, howling, running aimlessly or chasing their tail etc.).

This type of seizure can also be seen with structural epilepsy if the damage only affects a small area of the brain (e.g. tumour, trauma, stroke).
Depending on the signs, focal seizures may not be very obvious or difficult for owners to identify as an epileptic seizure. The number of cats with idiopathic epilepsy could therefore be underestimated. 

Generalised seizures

Generalised seizures, as opposed to focal seizures, affect the entire body combined with a loss of consciousness.

This type of seizure lasts from a few seconds to a few minutes (2–3 minutes on average). Although relatively short, it can seem much longer.

During a seizure, the animal first loses consciousness and lies on their side. This is then followed by intense movements on both sides of the body, during which the cat pedals/paddles its legs and often chews and grinds its jaws.

These movements may be accompanied by other signs, such as drooling, urination, defecation, dilated pupils, irregular or disrupted breathing.


Status epilepticus (Seizures which last for 5 minutes or longer)

Status epilepticus are seizures which persist for 5 minutes or more (or where two or more discrete seizures occur with incomplete recovery of consciousness in-between)  

Status epilepticus is a medical emergency and any cat experiencing this should be immediately taken to a vet for emergency treatment.


Do epileptic cats suffer during a seizure?

Although generalised seizures can look violent, and therefore scary to witness, they are usually accompanied by a loss of consciousness. This means that the animal does not feel any pain during a seizure.

Due to the erratic body movements associated with seizures, cats do risk injuring themselves on any obstacles in their surroundings, it is therefore important to make sure their environment is safe, with no sharp edges or risk of falling.

Just before and after a seizure, you may notice a change in your cat’s behaviour, such as; lethargy, excitation, seeking out contact or isolation, and disorientation. It is important to allow your cat peace and quiet to recover following a seizure

Antiepileptic medication can help reduce the intensity, number and duration of your cat’s seizures, or even eliminate them altogether. This minimises the risks and consequences of any seizures, and improves your pet’s general wellbeing. Speak to your vet to discuss the right medication for your cat.