Meningitis in Cats

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Catherine Barnette, DVM

What is meningitis?

Meningitis refers to inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. This outer membrane is known as the meninges; meningitis, therefore, is defined as inflammation of the meninges. Meningitis has a number of potential causes, including both infectious and non-infectious.

Meningitis is rare in cats. There is no breed, age, or sex predisposition.

What causes meningitis?

Meningitis can be caused by a number of infections, including bacterial, viral, fungal, and protozoal infections. These infections may reach the central nervous system via the sinuses, the inner ear, the vertebrae, or traumatic injuries such as a bite wound. In some cases, infections may reach the central nervous system via the bloodstream.

Meningitis may also be non-infectious in nature, caused by an immune-mediated inflammatory response (in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues). Additionally, some parasites may migrate through the brain and central nervous tissues, causing meningitis. Cuterebra species (bots) and heartworms are both known to cause parasitic meningitis in some cases.

In cats, the most common cause of meningitis is feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), although cryptococcosis (fungal), and toxoplasmosis (parasitic) are also reported.

What are the clinical signs of meningitis?

Common clinical signs of meningitis include fever, generalized pain (which may be severe), and rigidity of the neck. Affected cats are often lethargic and may refuse to eat.

Although meningitis itself does not cause neurologic signs, it may occur in association with encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), in a condition called meningoencephalitis. Cats with meningoencephalitis may show neurologic signs, including seizures, depression, balance problems, blindness, pacing, circling, and loss of consciousness.

How will my veterinarian diagnose meningitis?

Your veterinarian will begin by performing a thorough physical exam on your cat. Signs that may suggest meningitis include neck pain, decreased blood pressure, and changes to the optic nerve that may be visible on an ophthalmic (eye) exam.

Next, your veterinarian will likely perform complete baseline laboratory tests, including a complete blood cell count (CBC), serum biochemistry profile, and urinalysis. These tests will provide important information about your cat’s overall health and may provide an alternative explanation for your cat’s signs of illness. If your cat’s bloodwork is normal, additional (more specialized) testing for specific infectious organisms will likely be recommended. In many cases, your cat may be referred to a neurologist for these tests.

The most important diagnostic test in meningitis is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) of the brain. Performed while under a general anesthetic, characteristic changes of the structure of the brain and surrounding tissues may be seen, with findings varying by the location and cause of the meningitis.

An additional diagnostic test that may be recommended is a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) tap. Once under general anesthesia, a needle is inserted between the vertebrae in your cat’s neck or lower back, allowing your veterinarian to collect a small amount of the CSF that bathes the brain and spinal cord. This fluid is analyzed for the presence of abnormal protein levels, inflammatory cells, infectious organisms, or other indicators of disease. In many cases, analyzing the CSF can not only diagnose meningitis, but also suggest an underlying cause. Because of the risks involved with a CSF tap, an MRI or CT scan is preferred in many circumstances.

How is meningitis treated?

The treatment of meningitis depends largely on the underlying cause. In most cases, cats are critically ill when they present to the veterinarian and require hospitalization for aggressive treatment. Your veterinarian will perform frequent neurologic examinations on your cat during the course of treatment, in order to assess how she is responding to therapy.

  • Bacterial and protozoal infections are typically treated with antibiotics. In some cases, your veterinarian may begin with a broad-spectrum antibiotic and then change medications based on the results of CSF culture and sensitivity (a test in which bacteria are isolated from the CSF and tested to determine which antibiotics are most effective against the bacteria that are present).
  • Steroid-responsive meningitis is typically treated with prednisone. Cats are initially started on a relatively high dose of prednisone, with the dose tapered over the first several weeks of treatment. Side effects of prednisone treatment include increased thirst and urination, increased appetite, and increased susceptibility to infection. Long-term prednisone treatment (up to a year or more) may be required to prevent relapse.
  • Viral meningitis does not have a medical cure; however, different antiviral medications are being studied and show some success. Supportive care is an important part of treatment, including intravenous fluids to keep your cat hydrated, medications to decrease brain swelling, pain medications to alleviate discomfort, and nursing care.

What is the prognosis for meningitis?

The prognosis for meningitis is guarded, even with aggressive treatment.

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