Can Cats with Cerebellar Hypoplasia Live Happy Healthy Lives?

by Lyn Garson

When first meeting Hazel and Pippi, two young female calicos ready for adoption at the Our Companion’s Sanctuary, Hazel is more likely than not perched like a statue on the kitchen counter or high atop the refrigerator keeping a watchful eye on her daughter Pippi’s antics. Perhaps Hazel’s protective motherly instinct is attuned to the fact that while Pippi is completely healthy, she is not exactly the same as other cats. Happily unaware, carefree Pippi explores the world around her with exuberant fascination, though not in typical cat-like fashion. Her walk is wobbly and sometimes she loses her balance.

Pippi has Cerebellar Hypoplasia (CH), a neurologic disorder in which the cerebellum at the base of the brain fails to fully develop. The most common cause of CH occurs when kittens are affected by the Feline Panleukopenia Virus (commonly referred to as Feline Distemper) as a result of their mother’s being exposed to or infected with the virus during late-term pregnancy. Prior to birth, kittens can also acquire CH due to injury, bacterial infection, toxins or malnutrition, any of which may impede proper brain development. CH is not contagious to other cats, dogs or people. Adult cats cannot contract CH as they age- it is strictly a condition originating prenatally.

Symptoms of CH become much more apparent as kittens begin to stand and walk at four to six weeks of age. They are extremely uncoordinated. The cerebellum portion of the brain is the command center responsible for synchronization of the body’s nerves, muscles and bones for movement, balance and fine motor skills. Although CH cats retain normal cognitive function, their sensory information pathways are disrupted causing unsteady or wobbly limb movements, a wide hind-end stance, and an inability to gauge distances resulting in stumbles, flips and falls. They often display a stiff marching-type gait, or walk like their paws are on sticky ground. Their head can shake side to side, or bob while eating as if pecking at their food. Symptoms become exaggerated during focused tasks such as drinking, eating, or walking but interestingly CH cats show no signs at all when sleeping.

It is important to rule out other possible neurologic conditions with a thorough examination by a veterinarian who can usually diagnose CH without an MRI due to its classic symptoms. Although the label “kitty Parkinson’s disease” is sometimes used to describe CH cats due to their tremors, CH is not progressive like Parkinson’s in humans, meaning CH does not worsen over time. There is no cure for CH but improvement may be seen as cats learn various ways to compensate. Physical rehabilitation with hydrotherapy and muscle strengthening exercises can also be helpful. Life expectancy is not shortened due to CH and cats are otherwise healthy and fully capable of a good quality of life. Sadly, many CH cats are unnecessarily euthanized due to misconceptions that the condition is painful and/or contagious.

The degree to which CH cats require special care varies depending upon the severity level of CH affected cats — mild, moderate or severe. Some cats may have difficulty using their litter boxes, but modifications can be made by purchasing or making litter boxes with high sides and low entrances. CH cats are more prone to falls so precautions should be taken to ensure safety around stairs. The most common injuries seen are chipped teeth and broken nails. CH cats should remain exclusively indoors since they do not have the ability to easily defend themselves from predators. Although not as adept at jumping, CH cats are amazing climbers using their claws to grip carpeting or explore high places. They tend to dislike being grabbed or picked up quickly but they love attention and snuggling and are the sweetest most loving cats with easy-going personalities. For more information about CH and feline physical rehabilitation email the author at: [email protected].

Our Companions often has CH cats for adoption. Pippi has a mild case of CH and is looking to find a home with her mother, Hazel. She uses her litter box with no problems, easily climbs her multi-level cat tree, and especially loves playing in and on top of cardboard boxes.

Amelia, another offspring of Hazel, is also looking for a home. While Amelia’s CH is more pronounced than Pippi’s, she is a happy, affectionate, easy going cat who loves the companionship of people and other cats.

If you’d consider adopting a cat with CH, please contact us at [email protected]