My cats are my babies. They are my pride and joy(s). I go on about them way too much and I’m probably way too obsessed with the feline population than is good for me. Yes, I’m a self-confessed Crazy Cat Lady.
I have three children who are all adopted from cat rescues. My eldest is Sacha. She’s almost two, completely black except for a white smudge on her chest and white patches under her arms and stomach. I got Sacha when it was recommended that getting an animal could help with my recovery from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (best decision of my life). Sky is about 9 months old and entirely black with big amber eyes. He looks like a handsome goblin and my friends joke that I’m a witch and he’s my witches cat.
And then there’s Isla. She’s only 4 months old. She is absolutely gorgeous, a pure white with grey and ginger patches. I remember that when I first saw her, I said to my partner, Louise, ‘oh my goodness, she’s absolutely divine’. She also suffers from severe Epilepsy.
For a while me, Louise and our babies lived in this beautiful bubble, our own happy little family. Until one day, everything would change in the matter of approximately 30 seconds but we didn’t realise it at the time. In those 30 seconds, when Isla was just 3 months old, as we were getting ready for bed, our kitten had her first seizure. It was so quick that if we’d have been looking the other way we would never had noticed it, we might not have realised something was wrong for another week or so.
Admittedly, the first time I saw it, I didn’t know I was watching my kitten have a seizure. It was so strange to see that I actually thought she was doing a strange sort-of sneeze. Her head was twitching, only ever so slightly and her eyes were blinking more than normal. And when I crouched down closer to her I saw that she was dribbling. To be honest, at the time I really didn’t see the potential for what the start of this could be. Me and Louise both thought it was strange but we have some of the craziest cats in the country and we put it down to a one-off bit of craziness. But in retrospect, I think it was how Isla acted once the ‘episode’ was over that worried me the most. Any cat-lover knows the behaviour of their cats like the back of their hand. I know when my cats are happy, grumpy, wanting a little attention or when they’re about to have half-an-hour of madness around the house. And Isla just wasn’t… Isla.
Firstly, we noticed she was slightly wobbly, and a little disorientated. She was wandering around aimlessly and then stared blankly into space. The second thing was that she meowed, only twice, but it wasn’t a happy, chirpy mew, it was more of a howl, which said ‘I’m scared and confused’. But in another 30 seconds it was over for good. We gave her cuddles and she was back to her normal self (which consisted mostly of trouble-making, playing with things she wasn’t supposed to and being absolutely adorable). I wish I had savoured that moment more, when we could make things better with some cuddles and we wouldn’t even think anything else about it. And for another week things carried on normally. Blissful ignorance.
But then it happened for a second time and we realised that this wasn’t going to go away. The first episode was tame compared to the second. And then we really started to worry. It was another evening and Isla and Sky were playing in the kitchen. I was walking past and I saw Isla seize up and begin twitching in her eyes and face. Again, it only lasted about 30 seconds, but the twitching was stronger and more pronounced than before. She was salivating around her mouth again. We rang the Emergency Vets, described the symptoms. For the first time, me and my partner had said to each other, ‘now that looks like a seizure’. We described what had happened and Louise asked the nurse ‘Is it possible for cats to have seizures?’. At the time we didn’t fully understand what a seizure in a cat would look like. Even moreso, whether a 4 month old kitten would even suffer from such ‘episodes’.
We ruled out that she hadn’t accidentally eaten something toxic for cats (which can sometimes be the cause of similar reactions) and we were thoroughly reassured that it wouldn’t have been a seizure because she was so young, and that we were probably jumping to conclusions because we worried. And that was true, of course we were worried, she was our little baby. I called her my little dot, she was so small. And any pet owner will know the awful feeling of having a poorly pet and not being able to tell them that they’re going to be okay enough for them to understand. It’s a horrendously hopeless feeling, and we clung onto every word of the veterinary nurse. She sounded so sure that it wasn’t a seizure. She said we should make an appointment at the vets on Monday.
The next day on the Sunday we were watching Isla so closely we were going dizzy. But unfortunately, before the day was over, she had another episode. I remember exactly where she sat on the sofa when it happened, it was almost exactly the same as the night before. This time I told Louise to film her having the episode. It feels like the last thing you would ever want to do when your cat is malfunctioning so awfully, but we knew it would be vital for the vet to see what the episode was like to come to a proper diagnosis.
When we got her to the vets the next day and we showed the vet the video of Isla’s ‘episode’, the first words out of his mouth were ‘they definitely look like seizure attacks’. So that day little Isla was admitted to the animal hospital for a week. When she was there she was tested for multiple illnesses. One of these was toxoplasmosis. It’s a type of parasitic infection that is actually really common in cats and usually doesn’t affect the cat with any noticeable symptoms. But in some cases the symptoms of the infection can escalate to side effects like seizures. They also tested her blood for liver enzymes to make sure it was functioning normally. The vet explained that it was very rare, but possible for cats to have Primary Epilepsy. But diagnosing it is hard. There’s no test you can do to prove epilepsy. Instead, you have to disprove any other possible causes of the seizures. That’s why proving epilepsy is usually referred to as a diagnosis of deduction.
While she was in the hospital, she continued to have a seizure every day. Me and Louise were worried sick. We cried a lot. Because the reality that our kitten was much more poorly than we realised began to hit us. We were ringing up every morning to check she was okay.
Although it’s extremely rare for a seizure to directly be fatal. But the risks of having a seizure is that the body becomes exhausted, which is why it takes a while for Isla to come round after she’s had one. That’s why she wanders around and act’s a bit dopey. But also if a seizure lasts for longer than about 5 minutes it can cause damage to the brain. This is because when seizing, the body isn’t breathing in a normal rhythm meaning less oxygen gets to the brain.
A few days after she was admitted, Isla’s vet rang us and told us the tests had all come back clear. There was no sign of infection or a problem with her organs, which meant that the seizures could be put down to Primary Epilepsy. Obviously, it was such a relief to know that she didn’t have a serious infection or disease, but because Epilepsy isn’t curable, it meant that we would be looking at long term treatment options to control her seizures rather than get rid of them forever.
Once they had the results, the started Isla on a medicine called Phenobarb. It’s a barbiturate drug that acts as an anticonvulsant, so it stops the seizures from occurring less frequently or altogether while she takes the drug. It’s a type of medication that humans with epilepsy take too. It made sense that the twitching, blinking and salivating were the convulsions associated with epilepsy. And the blank staring into space is what’s known as an absent episode (quite literally where the brain goes completely blank and although conscious, the cat appears unresponsive). Then the wobbliness and wandering afterwards was Isla’s body trying to function normally even though it was exhausted and needed to recover.
I’ve always felt that I found more comfort in animals than most people. They are gentle, unconditionally loving and depend on you. I’ve always found cats soothing and therapeutic. Having PTSD is a fight everyday and every night. Having my cats to cuddle with, sometimes even to talk to, is exactly what I needed when I was unwell. That’s partly why I’m so attached to them, because even though I look after them, they look after me too, in their own way. And not to mention that they’re also absolutely hilarious and completely crazy. It made it heartbreaking to know she was unwell and I couldn’t fix it.
We brought Isla home after a week. We gave her tablets every morning and night to control the seizures and for a while it worked. But then our fears came true, when despite being on the medication, she had another seizure. This time it wasn’t just the facial twitching and drooling, she was falling over and spinning round in circles. It was one of the most horrendous things I’ve seen happen to an animal. After contacting the vet, we were told to double the dose. Isla is only tiny and before she was only taking a quarter of a tiny tablet, so now she was taking a half.
This time we had no seizures for two weeks. And then, just like the last time, they came back with a force. She had two in three days and the last one was the worst she’s had. She sat on my knee when it happened. I noticed her little blue eyes twitching a little and then it began again. We wrapped her in a towel and held her close while she thrashed about. Her tail was all fluffed up, she was making noises that were a mix between a meow and a growl. But the worst part was that when she was salivating there were streaks of blood dripping onto the towel. She had bitten through some of her tongue. This time it took almost half an hour for her to recover fully and then she slept for a long time. We watched her and cuddled her and cherished her so much. The only comfort we found was knowing that while she experiences a seizure, Isla doesn’t feel or remember the episode, all she knows is that she doesn’t feel quite right. Once she was asleep, I cried and cried in Louise’s arms. All I could think was that we were going to lose her.
The vet wanted to keep her in for a night at least to monitor her incase she had another seizure. And her Phenobarb was increased to one 15mg tablet morning and night. She hasn’t had a seizure since then, thankfully, however it doesn’t mean she’s not suffering with the effects of this awful illness. Although the medication stops the seizures, sometimes the side effects can be just as cruel.
At the moment, Isla sleeps an awful lot. She’s very off balance, wobbly, subdued and quiet. And believe me, I never thought I’d call Isla quiet. She’s the number one trouble-maker of the pack, always climbing on things she shouldn’t, the feline version of a tornado. One of the most difficult things is giving her tablets that take away some of her spark because it’s better than living with daily seizures. In an ideal world, epilepsy would have left our baby alone, and she could carry on living her life happily and full of energy. I’ve spent too long wondering why Isla? Because the truth is that it’s not fair, it’s so painfully unfair.
We know that Isla’s story isn’t over yet. We’ve had the infamous talk with our vet about the possibility that Isla’s epilepsy may never get under control and that if the medication is taking too much out of Isla and not even helping the problem, it may be the kinder thing to do to let her go. It would destroy us but seeing our little dot struggling is heartbreaking in itself. She’s only 4 months old, and we’re certainly not going to give up without a fight.
We don’t know what’s around the corner for Isla but one thing that this experience has taught us is how precious our animals are. How lonely, boring and laughless our life would be without them. If you’re going through this with your own pet. I hear you and I feel the pain that this can bring. If there’s anything you can take from Isla’s story, please hold your fur babies closer when you say goodnight, give them an extra treat just because you can, and tell them how much you love them (even though they’ll probably have no clue what we’re saying).
They don’t just need us, we need them even more.