The Truth About ‘Wobbly’ Cats

Trisha Torres had volunteered at her local shelter, on the dog side, for years. It was Christmas Eve of 2012 and this time her friend had come with her young daughter who wanted to get a look at all of the kitties. In one cage an affectionate cat stood with her face against the cage. Her head continually bobbed and she whacked her head against the cage repeatedly just so she could get petted. Torres recognized the cat’s symptoms and felt that she would be the cat’s best opportunity for finding a good home.

Torres, who volunteers at a dog rescue and fosters some from her home, says, “I knew I had to take this cat home.” It didn’t matter that it was Christmas Eve and she would soon have a full house. This cat needed her help to find a wonderful family and to live in a loving foster home in the meantime. Noticing that this cat was a “wobbly” cat she promptly named her Pixel. The name is short for pixilated, an old word meaning “intoxicated.”

One of the first things Torres did in the New Year was to set up an appointment with a veterinarian to get the newly named “Pixel” checked out. It was found that Pixel had cerebellar hypoplasia (CH). These cats have been nicknamed, “wobbly cats” or “drunken sailor cats” due to their funky walk and tendency to fall over. Torres herself had a CH cat named Ashley at home of about the same severity as Pixel.

Veterinarian Aurora Stipnieks says, “In cats often what happens is there is usually a virus that infects them in utero. And so when the development happens in utero the brain doesn’t get fully developed in the cerebellum, the brain stem. There are varying degrees of this and the issues are varying in each cat. On necropsy sometimes you can see a little segment of the cerebellum missing to almost a full segment being missing.”

Cats with cerebellar hypoplasia tend to have head bobbing or a head tremor, trouble walking as the ability to move their back legs has been impaired, issues maintaining balance and ataxia, meaning not having total control over bodily movements. The more segments of the brain stem that are missing, the more issues the cat will have. Stipnieks says that due to vaccinations, CH is preventable. The disorder is caused by a virus, like distemper or Feline Leukemia. As long as the mother has had vaccinations against these viruses the kittens will not be born with CH.

Since Stipnieks moved to Massachusetts in 2009 she has seen three cases of CH. When she lived in Texas, however, she saw it much more frequently. She believes that up here people tend to vaccinate their cats more.

Some cats with CH will be like any other cats, just a little wobbly. Others will need much more care, or may even have to be put to sleep due to their inability to function. But Stipnieks says, “There is nothing we’ve seen affecting the longevity of their lives. It’s really dependent on their ability to function.” Recently at the clinic where she works, Stipnieks said they had two kittens come in with CH. Their case was severe and they couldn’t even stand and had to be hand fed. They couldn’t do anything for themselves and the vets decided it would be difficult to find them a home and made the hard decision to put them down.

Pixel tends to stand out: not only because of her physical abnormalities, which can only be seen once she gets up to move, but because of her personality. She is a problem-solving master. If she wants something, she will find a way to get it and will try again and again until she succeeds. This trait is sometimes dangerous, for instance the time she decided she was going to climb the stairs. Due to her instability this caused her to repeatedly fall down the few steps she’d mastered until her owner put a stop to that dream.

Other times it is just a disaster for someone else, like the time she stole a chicken wing and began eating someone else’s dinner because it had been left on the bed. It takes her longer to get onto the bed because she can’t jump due to the issues in her back legs. This can give someone a false sense of security. Or rather the security of their food. But she can get up there and when she does, your food is not safe!

When asked if this persistence is a common attribute in CH cats, Stipnieks said, “I think it’s personality based. In general cats tend to be more independent and persistent. It’s also adaptability. They don’t know anything different so they have learned to deal with situations in different ways using other parts of their brain.”

In March of 2013 Pixel found her way to a loving home thanks to social media. Torres posted a video of Pixel walking around and getting petted showing off her affectionate nature and unique qualities in one go. Stipnieks shared this video where it popped up on the Facebook feed of Pixel’s owner.

Pixel is a wonderful cat for anyone, but she was perfect for a woman with chronic illness. It was a reason for her to get up in the morning. Pixel was a daily reminder that she could do anything, but it would just be done differently. She was proof to never give up. Not in a task and certainly not at life. Pixel is always up for a good snuggle and kisses, a laugh and a smile. She is an angel– a mischievous one, but an angel nonetheless.

Not every CH kitten is as lucky as Pixel. For cats who have the more severe malformations, it likely means death, like for the two kittens in this story. Although Pixel has CH she has a mild form. She is the best case scenario. She is able to function by herself. Pixel is able to use the litter box on her own with little trouble and feed herself. She has made adjustments to how she does things, but she is still able to do things.

This disease is entirely preventable. It is important to make sure that your cats, both male and female, have all of their vaccinations for their own health. Viruses, since they do not go away, can be expensive to treat. Getting the vaccinations will keep your pet healthy and happy and save your wallet in the long run. If your cat is having kittens, or is able to, the vaccinations play an even bigger role. They will help to ensure that the kittens will not be born with CH.