Staggering Disease in European Cats

Study sheds more light on this strange disease

A disease that has plagued cats in Europe for almost 50 years is finally getting some clarification. “Staggering disease” shows up with neurologic signs in cats. Affected cats move as if drunk, have tremors, seizures, and can’t retract their claws. Most cats start with mild signs primarily in the hind limbs but commonly progress over two weeks to the point of requiring euthanasia. Some cats will show an increase in vocalizations, while others become depressed and abnormally affectionate or aggressive. A few cats have survived for a year with gradually worsening symptoms.

Male cats (both intact and neutered) are at higher risk. All affected cats have had access to the outdoors, so most likely they were hunters. Winter and spring have a higher incidence of cases.

Recently, researchers looked at brain samples from 29 euthanized cats from Sweden, Austria, and Germany. In 28 of the brains, they found evidence of Rustrela virus. This virus is also commonly found in wood mice and yellow neck field mice, so they may be the host species. The Rustrela virus is a relative of the rubella virus seen in humans and has been associated with different diseases characterized by encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) in a number of other mammals, in particular zoo animal outbreaks of neurologic disease. This disease hasn’t yet been identified in North American cats.