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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

I have two cats, Ember and Dewie. They’re sisters from the same litter. Well, I honestly think that they might be retarded — Dewie especially. Since she was born she’s been different. She walks into walls and off tables, and she can’t walk like normal cats: she stumbles back and forth like a drunk girl dancing. And she tries to nurse from me and her sister, and even my male dog. I go to sleep and she’ll suckle on my earlobe, toes, or even my back. Same with my dog Wicket or her sister Ember. I know I didn’t take Dewie and Ember away from their mother too soon because they’ve lived in the same house since they were born 6-8 months ago. Ember acts the same way, but just slightly. I was just wondering if I need to do anything extra or just keep up with what I’ve been doing. To be honest, they’re both pretty spoiled.

~ Laira

Siouxsie: Laira, only your vet can tell you for sure what’s going on, so we definitely recommend you take Dewie and Ember in for a check-up. But from our research and experience, it sounds like they may be suffering from a condition called cerebellar hypoplasia.

Thomas: Cerebellar hypoplasia (CH) means that the part of the brain responsible for coordination and motor skills isn’t properly developed. CH kitties have a wobbly, jerky, uncoordinated gait.

Dahlia: Cats get CH from being infected with the feline panleukopenia (also known as feline infectious enteritis) virus while they’re in their mother’s uterus or shortly after they’re born.

Siouxsie: Dewie and Ember are lucky to be alive, because the mortality rate for kittens infected by panleukopenia is 90 percent! And kittens that do survive are almost always affected by CH.

Thomas: Cats with CH can live normal lives, and the condition doesn’t cause them any pain. However, you do need to make some special accommodations. First of all, a CH cat should never go outside unsupervised; they don’t have the motor skills to escape hazards like cars and predators.

Dahlia: These cats should also be prevented from getting on high surfaces like tables and kept safe from stairs because they could be severely injured by a fall. If you have stairs in your home, get baby gates to keep them from going up and down without supervision.

Siouxsie: Some CH cats do learn to compensate for their disability to an extent, but they rarely if ever become totally unaffected. This video of a CH cat named Gordon shows him as a kitten and as an adult; you’ll be able to see that he has been able to gain some control over his movements as he matured.

Thomas: You need to know that panleukopenia is an entirely preventable disease. There is a highly effective vaccine for the condition, and cats that receive regular vaccinations will not catch it and pass it on to their kittens. This is just one of the reasons why it’s so important that you make sure your cats get proper veterinary care!

Dahlia: If the mama cat had gotten her shots, Dewie and Ember may not have been born with CH.

Siouxsie: Now, Laira, we’re not saying this to put a guilt trip on you. You can’t undo what’s already been done. But we do think it’s important that you — and all of our readers — understand how crucial those vaccinations are in protecting cats from potentially fatal diseases.

Thomas: Keep in mind that cats don’t spend a lot of time angsting over disabilities because honestly, we just figure that’s the way we are and we’re OK with that. We really don’t know or care that other cats can walk straight when we can’t, and so on. As long as we’re in loving homes and we’re safe and well taken care of, that’s really all we need to have a good life!

Dahlia: But how do you know if mama cat did have panleukopenia at any time during or shortly after her pregnancy?

Siouxsie: According to The Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, the panleukopenia virus is in the same family as the canine parvovirus. It primarily affects the white blood cells and the digestive system.

Thomas: Symptoms appear two to 10 days after infection and include vomiting frothy, yellow-stained bile; hovering over the water bowl without drinking; crouching in pain and possibly issuing plaintive cries; yellow or blood-streaked diarrhea; loss of appetite; apathy; and a high fever.

Dahlia: We don’t know if mama cat ever had these symptoms, and if you weren’t there for her pregnancy and birth, perhaps you can ask someone who was.

Siouxsie: One more thing: Now that mama cat has had her kittens and they’re weaned, you really need to have her spayed. Millions of unwanted cats and kittens are killed in shelters because their mothers weren’t spayed. Make sure to have the kittens spayed, too.

Thomas: And of course, make sure your kittens have regular vet visits and are kept up to date on their core vaccinations.

Dahlia: If you need financial assistance to get your cats spayed or neutered, many animal shelters and states (in the US) offer vouchers or low-cost spay/neuter clinics. If you’re not in the US, there may be similar programs in your country or town.

Siouxsie: As far as the suckling goes, that is within the range of normal behavior for kittens. If it becomes a problem, you can check out a column from the Paws and Effect Archives for some ideas on how to deal with it.

Thomas: Good luck, Laira, and thank you for taking such good care of your special kitties.

Dahlia: This is one of our favorite cat videos: the story of Charley, a cat born with cerebellar hypoplasia.