This Condition Makes Cats Walk Like They're A Little Tipsy
“They don’t know there’s anything different about them … they’re usually some of the happiest, sweetest cats you’ll ever meet.”
Walter Pickles Pants is a very special cat.
He wobbles and swaggers wherever he goes. Though it’s only water in his dish, he is constantly falling over as if he’s had too much to drink.
Walter’s peculiar gait is the result of a neurological disorder known as feline cerebellar hypoplasia (FCH), which makes him perpetually off-balance, though unmistakably adorable.
So what is cerebellar hypoplasia?
The neurological disorder is found in both cats and dogs, occurring when the cerebellum, the part of the brain that regulates muscular activity and motor skills, is not completely developed at birth, explains Dr. Erika Loftin, emergency veterinarian and critical care specialist with DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital.
“One of the most common causes of cerebellar hypoplasia is a virus or bacterial infection contracted by the mother when pregnant,” Loftin tells The Dodo. If the mother is exposed to feline panleukopenia virus (also known as feline distemper), the highly contagious disease can infiltrate the stem cells of the developing fetuses. Kittens born with cerebellar hypoplasia will experience “jerky movements, tremors, poor balance and lack of coordination,” Loftin notes.
The disorder is particularly striking in cats, who some might say are known for their superb balance and grace. But contrary to popular belief, cats don’t always land on their feet.
Walter may have some special needs, but he certainly hasn’t let FCH get in his way, explains Kendra Mara, associate director of Animal Haven Shelter in New York City, Walter’s residence while waiting for his forever home.
“They’re wobbly, they fall over, but it’s not the same sensation that you would have if you felt dizzy,” Mara tells The Dodo. “They don’t feel dizzy, they don’t feel anything uncomfortable. They know falling over and bumping into things as part of their daily life — so for them, it’s not painful, it’s not uncomfortable. It’s just who they are.”
Cats with FCH are often misunderstood or pitied by people unfamiliar with the disorder, Mara explains, when, in fact, it should be quite the opposite. “A lot of people say ‘That’s so sad’ or ‘I feel bad for them,’ but once you spend time with [a cat with FCH] you realize they’re not in pain, and they don’t know there’s anything different about them,” Mara says. “They’re usually some of the happiest, sweetest cats you’ll ever meet.”
FCH does not affect a cat’s life expectancy, so as long as the cats are loved and cared for, owners can expect to have plenty of good years with their wobbly pet. “There is no cure or treatment for cerebellar hypoplasia, but many animals with this condition can live a good quality of life,” Loftin confirms.
Reportedly found as a stray, 8-year-old Walter Pickles has been living at Animal Haven for approximately four months, and in that brief time, he has become a sort of celebrity. “From the minute he got here he’s been treated like a king. I’m pretty sure he thinks he’s a king,” Mara says. “We are kind of like his caretakers and servants.”
Walter suffers from a moderate case of FCH. He can use the litter box, groom himself and do most of the things any other cat can do. “He definitely likes playing with his toys. He gets the zoomies sometimes, and you’ll see him flying all over the place. But his favorite activity is really just being around people,” Mara says. “Every morning he demands a hug from both of us. We have to pick him up and hold him for at least five or ten minutes. And if we don’t, he stands outside the gate and yells.”
Walter spends the majority of his time in the Animal Haven offices, where the floors are covered with yoga mats and bedding. “Since the floor can be a little slick, yoga mats really help him with the traction,” Mara says. “Plus, if he falls, he has a little more cushion. But he’s very used to falling all the time, and it never seems to hurt him — he just gets back up and keeps going.”
When considering fostering or adopting a cat with FCH, there are a few things to keep in mind, Loftin notes. “Like any special needs pet, cats with cerebellar hypoplasia require extra care and attention. They should be indoors only. Oftentimes an owner will need to make special accommodations for their litter box and food bowls. It’s best to talk to your veterinarian, since different accommodations can be made depending on the severity of their disorder.”
While the disorder does not directly affect their lifespan, cats with FCH can be prone to accident-related injuries, like chipped teeth or broken nails (Walter has five teeth remaining), so it’s a good idea to “baby proof” the area of the house the cat uses as much as possible, according to Loftin.
Walter has been in and out of foster care, but he is still looking for the right person to bring him home for good. “We’re looking for a special home for him. Even though he doesn’t require that much more than a normal cat, I’d say he’s high maintenance in that he loves constant attention,” Mara says. “He’d probably do best as the only animal as he’s just happier being the center of attention. He does like to be hand-fed multiple times a day, and if he’s hungry or wants love, he’ll demand it.”
Walter may demand a little extra attention from his owner, but he returns the love tenfold. “We’ve had in the past decade about eight or nine cats with FCH here and they’ve all gotten adopted and they’re all doing great,” Mara says. “We love them, and, honestly, I think anyone who adopts a cat with FCH gets really lucky because they’re just special. There’s something about them — they will bond to you so much quicker and on a deeper level.”