By Maura McAndrew
We’ve all heard the sayings that cats have “nine lives” and they “always land on their feet.” These old adages reflect our perception of cats as incredibly resilient creatures. They are graceful, careful, and they know how to take care of themselves. Right? But as cat owners learn, this is not always the reality. In spite of cats’ seeming ability to come out of danger unscathed, they are still vulnerable to injury. And when cats do get hurt, they need our help—even if they’re too proud to ask.
This includes head injuries as well. “Cats can get ‘concussion injuries,’” says Dr. M. Ryan Smith, assistant professor of emergency and critical care at the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Victor Oppenheimer, director of the Perla del Sur Animal Hospital in Ponce, Puerto Rico, agrees. “Cats can get concussions at any time,” he explains. “Concussions are common due to the fact that they like to walk on ledges and climb trees.”
With the help of our experts, we’ll guide you through what you need to know about the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for cat concussions.
Causes of Concussions in Cats
Concussions in cats can result from many scenarios, but according to our experts, the main factor is “blunt trauma.” Common causes of this include falling from height (e.g., a tree, a ledge, a roof…you name it), getting hit by a car, or running into something (or someone) at top speed. Other more rare causes include forceful shaking as may occur in a dog attack, and even mistreatment or abuse by people. “It is not breed specific and it can happen to domestic as well as feral cats,” Oppenheimer adds.
The symptoms of head trauma may not be as obvious as other injuries, like broken bones or bleeding. But veterinarians often find evidence of head injury when examining cats for these other issues. “Statistically, one study cited up to 42 percent of cats that presented for a trauma had some evidence of head injury on exam,” Smith explains. So even if you don’t think your kitty hit his head in that fall, it’s probably a good idea to get him immediate medical attention.
Because the most frequent causes of head injury happen outdoors, this is a good reminder that an indoor cat is a safer cat. The Humane Society of the United States strongly recommends keeping cats indoors, explaining that they live longer and healthier lives. Indoor cats have a reduced risk of concussion because they are more protected from traffic, extreme heights, and other dangers.
Symptoms of Feline Concussion
If you witness any kind of trauma involving your cat, of course, you’ll know to take her to the vet right away. But in cases where the owner doesn’t witness the event, how else can you tell if your cat might have a concussion?
“Cats are notorious for their ability to hide illness and injury,” Smith explains, “thus a traumatic brain injury may not be apparent unless it is more severe.” Some obvious signs to look for, he explains, are loss of consciousness, unresponsiveness, seizures, trouble walking, or vomiting. He adds that any behavior you might consider “abnormal” for your cat is also worth checking out.
Oppenheimer adds that a cat’s eyes can also indicate that something’s not quite right. One symptom of brain injury is nystagmus, or repetitive, uncontrolled eye movements. “Think of the eyes from the old cat clocks, the way they move—that’s classic nystagmus,” he says. Other red flags he mentions are anisocoria, or different-sized pupils, and “deficits in pupillary light reflexes,” which means pupils are not constricting and dilating normally in response to light and darkness.
What to Do If You Suspect a Concussion
If you observe symptoms of a brain injury in your cat, it’s important to act quickly and calmly. It should be noted that as with humans, cat concussions vary in severity, and some will be so minor as to not have lasting effects. But no matter how mild the injury, the best course of action is to seek prompt medical treatment.
“Simply put, the pet should be brought to a veterinarian for proper and thorough evaluation after any trauma, especially if there is suspicion or evidence of a head injury,” Smith advises. “Many clinical features of head injury can be very subtle and require the expertise of a veterinarian.”
Before heading out to the vet, there are preliminary steps you can take to help your cat. If she is “convulsing” or “rolling over,” Oppenheimer explains, wrap her in a towel so you can hold her while protecting yourself. If possible, you should also “place an ice pack over the cat’s towel-covered head,” he advises. “Cooling the head will slow down the movement of any toxic inflammation trying to spread through the brain.”
Then there’s the task of transporting Felix to the vet—easier said than done, even under normal circumstances. It’s crucial to take extra care with a cat who has suffered trauma to avoid further damage. “The best method of transportation is in a closed cat carrier,” Smith says. “Its rigid construction is best for moving the patient from place to place with less jostling around, which could exacerbate other injuries, like fractures.”
Tempted to address your kitty’s suffering yourself by giving him pain relievers or other medications at home? Don’t do it—it will harm more than help. “This may cause more damage and make our treatment work more difficult at the animal hospital,” Oppenheimer warns. For example, small doses of drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen are toxic to cats and can even be fatal.
Never Wait: See a Vet ASAP
Acting quickly is extremely important in cases of head trauma due to the risk of what is called “secondary injury.” As Drs. Laurent Garosi and Sophie Adamantos explain in their 2011 journal article “Head Trauma in the Cat,” “Head trauma can produce primary and secondary brain injury. Primary injuries, which are not treatable or reversible, describe the direct tissue damage that occurs at the time of initial impact…. Secondary injury is the additional insult imposed on the neural tissue following the primary impact.” Basically, this means that the longer your cat goes without proper treatment, the greater the likelihood of additional injury to the brain.
At the vet’s office, Oppenheimer explains, “brain injuries are treated as emergencies due to the possibility of paralysis, cognitive disorders, and even death.” When you bring your cat to the vet, be clear that you suspect a brain injury so they can act accordingly. It’s also helpful to call ahead.
Treatment for Feline Concussion
Once your cat is in your veterinarian’s hands, he will be examined to determine the severity of injury. “For milder head injuries, supportive treatment and pain management is usually all that is necessary,” Smith says. “Monitoring of medical progress may be recommended, and will commonly be included with recommendations for treatment of the patient's other injuries.” If the initial exam indicates a particularly severe head injury, the cat may need to undergo an MRI or CT scan.
The vet will treat the injury according to the type and severity. In more severe cases, vets will typically use “IV fluids, anti-inflammatories, and neurological types of medications,” Oppenheimer says. It may take from a few days to a week to see signs of recovery, he notes, so cats will usually be kept at the vet for monitoring.
Another option used by some veterinary clinics is laser treatment. Oppenheimer, who is a class 2 cold laser expert, recommends this method of treatment. It works by using laser frequencies to “remove any toxic inflammation, open the lymphatic system so that this toxic waste can get out, and repair those cells that have unstable mitochondrial DNA,” he says. “This in turn will activate the cells around it, spreading health to the surrounding tissue, avoiding more cell damage.”
Treatments vary widely depending on the type of trauma your kitty suffers, and your vet will recommend the best course.
Because brain trauma in cats happens suddenly, it doesn’t hurt to take prevention and preparation steps now. Keep your cat indoors and out of danger, know your local emergency vet, remember the signs and symptoms, and know what’s normal for your cat—then you’ll be quicker to spot if something’s not right.