February 2009 Issue

Epilepsy: Always Alarming

Some seizures can be traced to an underlying disorder, while others remain a mystery.

Whether happily playing with its favorite toy, vigorously pursuing a tiny mouse, or frantically fleeing from a mean-spirited predator, all of your cat’s activities rely on the controlled transmission of electrical signals among the billions of nerve cells (neurons) that are jammed into its little brain. In a normal cat, the transmission — or firing — of these signals is well controlled within the central nervous system. These neurons either fire or are inhibited from firing according to an animal’s shifting needs and desires. In the brains of cats affected with the disorder known as epilepsy, however, this elegant process goes awry. As Alexander de Lahunta, James Law Professor Emeritus of Anatomy at the Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, explains: "Neurons are made to fire, so until the transmission of electrical signals is needed, they are kept in a static, inhibited state. If something interferes with that inhibition, an uncontrolled firing of neurons can occur — and that is the phenomenon commonly referred to as a seizure." Dr. de Lahunta describes the "classic" seizure as follows: "The animal suddenly begins to alter its behavior. It acts warily, as if it senses that something unusual is about to happen. It gets very tense, its muscles contract, causing stiffness and trembling. It begins to chew and to drip saliva, even though there is nothing in its mouth. Then the animal becomes increasingly rigid, falls to one side with its limbs extended, and starts paddling them. "Meanwhile, the cat’s entire body starts shaking — and at this stage, it may stop breathing for as long as 30 or 40 seconds. And then, the panting and shaking and everything else begins to slow down — and within a few minutes, the animal seems to be normal again."

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