This sounds like something you might read in line at the check out counter in one of the tabloids. “The disease which is turning British cats into living robots — and experts say there is no cure.” Except I know this isn’t a hoax.
Robotic Cat Disease Explained
Over time, the legs of affected cats get rigid, they walk with a stiff gait, their tails stiffen and stick out, and their personality might change as they become more affectionate, even needy — while a few have become aggressive. Veterinarians have no idea what it is, but for lack of a proper identification some have dubbed it the staggering disease, named for the way affected cats walk.
The condition has baffled vets, as tests for numerous viruses have come back negative. Their best guess is that the cats caught the disease while out hunting. Staggering disease doesn’t seem to occur in indoor cats.
Veterinarians first guessed a virus may be the culprit, but so far that doesn’t seem to be the case. Whatever this is doesn’t seem to be transmitted from cat to cat. It might be that the cats are eating voles or mice that infected with a still to be determined virus.
My very uneducated guess is it isn’t viral, but a parasite that’s causing this robotic cat disease, perhaps a tick borne disease.
When Parasites Take Over
Many times in nature, parasites do strange and wacky things to the brains of their host and/or affecting neurological systems. For example, some parasitic flatworms that the crustacean Gammardean gets cause changes the host’s behavior; they become more likely to move toward light and exhibit aberrant “suicidal” evasive behaviors. These behavioral changes make the infected crustacean more likely to be eaten by birds, which the flatworm uses as a host for the next stage in its life cycle.
Here’s another example: After the parasitic wasp Glyptapanteles completes an early life stage withing the invaded body of a caterpillar, the caterpillar (Thyrinteina leucocerae) exhibits stunning changes. It stops eating and stays close by the wasps, which it cocoons. It wraps them in a protective web of silk and defends them against approaching predators with violent, relentless head-swings. It continues this until the wasps emerge from their cocoons, then it dies.
Dozens of other examples of weird parasite effects exist in nature. My conjecture is that this odd behavior to cats may be one of those.
Treatment for Robot Cats
Veterinarians have tried treatments including painkillers, vitamins, antibiotics and drugs normally given to multiple sclerosis sufferers, but none have worked.
Most often, the affected cats are elderly; they gradually become more disabled and when they start to find it hard to swallow, they are usually put down – normally within a year of falling ill. After the initial discovery in the U.K., cats in Sweden and Australia have now been reported with similar symptoms.
Big Honor for Little Doctor
Dr. Susan Little is the latest to be honored as a CATalysta by the CATalyst Council, for her 25 years of medical support for cats. Little, a past president of the Winn Feline Foundation, edited the comprehensive “The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management” (Elsevier, 2011). She speaks all around the world on cat health – if there are cats in that country, she’s likely been there (or will be soon). Read her story here.