Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I have a female cat, Daisy, who is 5 years old. She has always been very healthy. She sleeps indoors goes around in the garden, not away from home. Daisy has recently developed tremors in her front legs. Sometimes when its quite bad, her head also shakes. She is not eating much, and has now become very fussy about what she eats; she refuses all cat food and I am now feeding her tuna, which she likes. I am very worried about her. Her vet seems to think its a feline form of human Parkinson’s, and wanted to put her on medication which she would have to take for all her life. I am worried about the side effects of this medication, as it will be steroids. Please help.
Siouxsie: We think it’s pretty unusual that a 5-year-old cat would have Parkinson’s-like neurological symptoms. In humans, Parkinson’s Disease most commonly affects older individuals, and we’d think that would be the same for cats. At age 5, Daisy is still quite young, as cats can live to be 20 years old or more with good care.
Thomas: You didn’t mention if your vet had done tests such as X-rays, MRI or C-T scans, or blood tests on Daisy. These tests would show if Daisy had an injury to her brain or a ruptured disc. When the discs, protective layers of tissue between the vertebrae, get swollen or ruptured, that can cause tremors or other related symptoms because the nerves are getting compressed and therefore they can’t transmit their signals properly.
Dahlia: Brain scans would also indicate if Daisy has any lesions in her brain–possibly caused by a head injury or stroke–or tumors that could be pressing against brain tissues.
Siouxsie: There are some hereditary neurological diseases that can cause similar symptoms, but these are quite rare and you would have seen indications that Daisy had a problem like that while she was still a kitten. Bacterial infections can cause encephalitis (swelling of the brain) or meningitis (swelling of the protective covering of the spinal cord), and this swelling can cause symptoms ranging from tremors to seizures and even coma. A blood test or a spinal tap would indicate if Daisy has an infection.
Thomas: It’s possible that your cat is suffering from chronic poisoning. Poisoning by heavy metals such as lead and mercury can lead to neurological symptoms like tremors. In the United States, lead is commonly found in paint in older houses. Lead paint wasn’t banned here until 1978, so it is still possible for children and animals to get lead poisoning. Sometimes even cleaning up lead paint, by carefully removing it and disposing of it safely, can lead to excess lead in the environment. We’re not sure if lead paint is as common in Europe and other parts of the world as it is here. Also, gasoline used to contain lead–and in some developing countries, leaded gasoline is still used. The lead goes out the exhaust pipes of cars, and then can be breathed in by people and animals.
Dahlia: Mercury can get into the body through eating large fish such as salmon or tuna. Industrial pollution is the main way mercury gets into rivers and seas. Small fish eat plants contaminated with mercury, bigger fish eat those smaller fish, and so on. What this means is that the biggest fish (which ate all the littler fish) have the highest concentration of mercury in their tissues. Many common items such as disposable batteries and electronics also contain mercury; if these are burned with garbage, mercury can get into the air via the smoke from the incinerators.
Siouxsie: Both lead and mercury poisoning can cause behavior changes, such as increased anger or anxiety, as well as neurological symptoms like staggering gait or tremors. This article describes Minimata Disease, a condition which broke out in a coastal town in Japan that caused cats and people to behave crazily and eventually develop tremors and seizures. Minimata disease turned out not to be a disease at all; it resulted from mass mercury poisoning as a result of industrial pollution.
Thomas: Gardens can be a source of trouble if you use pesticides in them. Pesticide poisoning can cause neurological problems, but generally those are more severe and acute. Seizures, staggering, vomiting and collapse are among the symptoms of poisoning by various insecticides.
Dahlia: Certain plants are toxic to cats as well. This site has a comprehensive list of cat-toxic (and cat-safe) plants from all over the world. The list is in English, but if you use a search engine you should be able to find the scientific name.
Siouxsie: While we’re on the subject of websites, here is a list of common household toxins from Cornell University’s animal science department.
Thomas: If your vet hasn’t done a full range of diagnostic tests, we’d recommend that you have those tests done. They will be expensive, but it’s worth it to know what’s really wrong with Daisy.
Dahlia: If Daisy is suffering from poisoning, she can recover. A variety of treatments are available, and your kitty could become healthy again if she gets the toxins out of her body.
Siouxsie: If you do find out Daisy has heavy metal poisoning, you should have yourself tested, too. Cats’ bodies are much more sensitive to poisons, and their illness can be an early warning sign you can use to help yourself before you get really sick, too. If you live in an area where there are a lot of toxins and pollution, consider moving. If you can’t move away, do your best to get the poisons out of the air by using air purifiers and a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter that will catch the small particles.
Thomas: Conversely, if you find out that Daisy does have a neurological disease (a lesion, tumor or other disorder), you may be able to use options other than, or in addition to, steroids in order to treat her. The X-ray and brain scan will be a great start for figuring out what is or isn’t wrong. We’d recommend that you consult with a veterinary neurologist to find other options for treatment. If Daisy does have the feline form of Parkinson’s Disease, maybe a neurologist will tell you that drugs used to treat Parkinson’s in humans can be used off-label for cats, for example. Plesae note: We’re not vets, so please don’t take this as veterinary advice or a suggested course of treatment. It could be that Parkinson’s drugs are deadly poisons to cats. Do not give any drugs to your cat without explicit directions from your veterinarian!
Dahlia: Veterinary science has advanced a lot in the last 20 to 25 years, and there are more treatment options than ever for even the rarest or most difficult diseases. Even holistic treatment modalities such as homeopathy or acupuncture are becoming more common, and are helping lots of chronically ill cats live better, longer lives. The best use of holistic medicine is in combination with standard veterinary medicine.
Siouxsie: Good luck to you and Daisy, Magda. Please write back and tell us how things turned out. We’d love to know what happened so that we can help other cats and their people.