Researchers Ask: Can Sound Cause Your Cat To Seizure?

A new study looks at how certain sounds might cause cats to flee, jerk or have seizures.

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Cats, especially senior cats, might suffer unexpected reactions to some simple sounds, according to a new study. Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Cats, especially senior cats, might suffer unexpected reactions to some simple sounds, according to a new study. Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio

If you’ve ever watched “Tom and Jerry,” you’re aware of all of the cartoon cat and mouse’s antics. Have you ever noticed that whenever Jerry uses sound to distract Tom in all of Jerry’s booby traps, Tom responds with involuntary shaking? Turns out there have been enough complaints to the International Cat Care charity (based in the UK) about people’s cats having seizures in response to high-pitched sounds that this phenomenon has been named the “Tom and Jerry Syndrome.”

Mark Lowrie and Laurent Garosi are veterinary neurologists at Davies Veterinary Specialists in England. They teamed up with Robert Harvey, a molecular neuroscientist/geneticist at the University College London School of Pharmacy, to survey cat owners about this “Tom and Jerry Syndrome.”

“The charity International Cat Care asked us about several enquiries it had received regarding cats having seizures, seemingly in response to certain high-pitched sounds,” Lowrie says. “At first we said we had not heard about anything like this before. However, on looking into the problem we realized it was a very common problem that veterinarians knew very little about.”

This gave the research team a reason to find out more. They sought out cat owners and asked them to complete a questionnaire, with the aim of using this information to help cats with this syndrome and ultimately see if it could be useful to help people who suffer from this difficult condition.

To date, the researchers have logged over 400 worldwide enquiries, and of these, 128 owners completed the questionnaire.

In the study, these 128 cat owners had all noticed their felines reacting strangely to different sounds. I understand completely. My cat, Butterscotch, has always behaved strangely toward sounds, though he only runs away when they’re high-pitched. A bookcase could fall over and he wouldn’t even flinch. One time, my daughter played a high note on her recorder, and Butterscotch was under the couch for hours after that.

Lowrie says that this is not something that is unique to cats only.

“In people, the condition where seizures occur in response to a trigger is known as reflex epilepsy,” he says. “If this trigger is a sound then the term audiogenic reflex epilepsy is used. Little is known about the condition in people or cats.”

The researchers published their findings in the “Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.” They looked at data from 96 cats. The data included the type of seizure the cat had, how long it lasted, and what sound caused the seizure. The three seizures that the cats could have were characterized as absence seizures, myoclonic seizures or generalized tonic-clonic seizures. The “Tom and Jerry Syndrome” has now been named FARS, or feline audiogenic reflex seizures.

“Our findings show that some cats do indeed suffer from audiogenic reflex seizures — those which are consistently caused by sounds,” Lowrie says. “Certain sounds induced ‘absences’ (non-convulsive seizures), myoclonic seizures (brief, shock-like jerks of a muscle or a group of muscles), or generalised tonic-clonic seizures. This last category is what most people think of when the term seizure is mentioned, with the cat losing consciousness and its body stiffening and jerking, often for several minutes.”

The investigation found that FARS occurred in pedigree and non-pedigree cats, but that among the pedigrees, the Birman breed was over-represented. This is also a problem for older cats — with the average age of seizure onset being 15 years, with a range of 10 to 19 years.

The questionnaires revealed the three sounds that affected the cats most were crinkling tinfoil (which affected 82 cats), a metal spoon clanking on a ceramic food bowl (79 cats), and tapping glass (72 cats). Other, less common triggers were the sound of breaking the tinfoil from packaging, texting, digital alarms, Velcro, stove igniting ticks, mobile phone ringing, running water, a dog jangling its collar as it scratched, computer printer, firewood splitting, wooden blocks being knocked together, walking on a wooden floor with bare feet or squeaky shoes and, in one case, the short, sharp scream of a young child.

“Avoiding the sounds could reduce the seizures, although owners reported that it was sometimes difficult to avoid certain sounds, and the loudness of the sound also seemed to increase the severity of seizures,” Lowrie says.

The researchers believe that cats are sensitive to high-pitched sounds because of their evolution as a species. They say that “cats developed a secondary ultrasonic sensitive hearing range… as an evolutionary advantage in catching rats and mice.”

Right now, the same team of researchers is working on a cure for FARS.

“So far, we have not found a drug that cures FARS, but we may have found something that helps manage these cats, particularly if it is started early in the course of the condition,” Lowrie says. “A second study is soon to be published suggesting that levetiracetam is an excellent choice in managing this condition. Our experience is that this medication can completely rid a cat of these sound-induced seizures, including the myoclonic twitches, with one owner stating, ‘levetiracetam has truly been a miracle drug for my cat.’”

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