Cerebellar hypoplasia is a neurological condition that occurs in kittens and puppies who are born with an underdeveloped cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls coordination, balance, and fine motor skills.
In both humans and animals, the cerebellum (literally “little brain”) sits underneath the cerebrum and behind the brainstem at the base of the skull. Its job is to receive and interpret information from our inner ears and feet to help us recognize exactly where our bodies are in space at any given point in time. Are we standing up, lying down, rightside up or upside down?
When the cerebellum doesn’t develop properly before birth, it causes kittens and puppies to experience walking and balance issues that last for the rest of their lives.
What Causes Cerebellar Hypoplasia?
The cerebellum’s growth can be stunted by several different things. In cats, the most common culprit is the feline panleukopenia virus, an extremely contagious and life-threatening virus that kills cells that are rapidly growing. In dogs, cerebellar hypoplasia is most commonly caused by the canine herpes virus. Some dog breeds (including Airedales, Chow Chows, and Gordon Setters) also have a genetic predisposition to developing cerebellar hypoplasia.
If a mother dog or cat is infected with these viruses, exposed to certain toxins, have nutritional deficiencies while pregnant, or suffer an injury or trauma to their womb, their offspring can be born with cerebellar hypoplasia. The condition may affect only one kitten or puppy, or the entire litter may be affected, sometimes to varying degrees.
What Cerebellar Hypoplasia Looks Like
Symptoms of cerebellar hypoplasia in puppies are usually evident around 6 weeks of age when they first begin to walk. In kittens, the signs may appear earlier. Some symptoms may be barely noticeable, while others may be more severe.
The most common sign of cerebellar hypoplasia is an unsteady, uncoordinated gait. This is why affected animals are often affectionately referred to as “wobblers”. Because they have balance issues, they may walk with their legs very wide apart to avoid toppling over, appear to sway from side to side while walking, and often lean against walls or other objects for support.
Other signs include:
- Head tremors. This is uncontrollable shaking of the kitten’s or puppy’s head while they are trying to focus on something. These can be brought on by fatigue, fear, or stress, but usually pass in a few moments. These tremors aren’t painful, and unlike seizures, they aren’t harmful and don’t cause any type of permanent damage.
- Intention tremors. These usually occur when the kitten or puppy intends to voluntarily make some kind of movement, like walking, playing, or bending over to eat or drink out of a bowl. These can result in them falling or flipping over, but don’t usually cause damage (unless the fall is severe, like off a high bed or down a flight of stairs).
- An inability to correctly judge distance. This makes it more difficult for them to jump from place to place (especially for kittens), or to correctly gauge how far away an object is.
- Frequent falling over or flipping.
Animals with cerebellar hypoplasia may appear perfectly normal while sitting still, but once they’re moving or focused on something, their tremors and uncoordinated gait immediately give them away.
How Is Cerebellar Hypoplasia Diagnosed?
Unfortunately, cerebellar hypoplasia can’t be diagnosed with routine laboratory testing. The only way to officially diagnose it is with a CT (computed tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). If the animal’s cerebellum is smaller than normal, it will show up on the results.
Fortunately, these tests are often unnecessary due the fact that the symptoms are so easy to spot. However, there are other diseases and conditions that can mimic cerebellar hypoplasia, so it’s best to have confirmation from your veterinarian.
So What Is Life Like For Pets With Cerebellar Hypoplasia?
I’m very glad you asked!
It’s important to remember that cats and dogs with cerebellar hypoplasia aren’t sick, weak, or in pain – they’re simply uncoordinated. They often learn to adapt to their disability over time and become quite skilled at working around it. They’re not contagious to other animals, can be safely spayed and neutered, and enjoy the same quality of life and life expectancy as “normal” healthy pets. Cerebellar hypoplasia is non-progressive, so although it will always be there, it will never get worse. In fact, some pets actually improve over time as they learn ways to adapt.
Below is a video of a cat named Charley with cerebellar hypoplasia. He is obviously living a very happy life!
Although pets with cerebellar hypoplasia can get along quite well, there are some things to keep in mind when caring for them:
They require protection when outdoors. Since cats with CH can be easily injured or attacked if they go outdoors, they should be kept indoors only (unless taken outside for short visits and closely supervised in a safe, fenced-in area). Dogs should be kept on a leash at all times when outside.
They may require modifications in the home to keep them safe. Stairs may need to be blocked off, or if the cat or dog can navigate stairs (which many can), they may need textured stair pads to help them grip better. Carpeting throughout the house will also help for those times when they may take an unintentional tumble.
They may need customized food and water dishes. Many pets with cerebellar hypoplasia “peck” at their food because they have difficulty leaning down to eat or drink. Dishes that are raised off the floor, such as those in elevated feeders, are very helpful, as are water bowls that are both wide in diameter and heavy so they don’t slip around.
Why You Should Consider Adopting A Pet With Cerebellar Hypoplasia
The wonderful thing about cats and dogs with cerebellar hypoplasia is that they don’t seem to know they are any different from anyone else. Most can run, play, go up and down stairs, and are incredibly affectionate (most likely from developing a close bond with their guardians).
Although they may be limited in what they can do, it’s inspiring to watch them progress over time, figure things out, and create their own ways of getting around obstacles. For instance, some cats with CH may not be able to jump, but they can become very skilled climbers instead.
Years ago when I was in veterinary practice, we didn’t know the things we know now about cerebellar hypoplasia. It breaks my heart to think of the kittens and puppies who were euthanized because it was thought that they would never have a “normal life.” Even now, many shelters still don’t place CH pets for adoption, and many are needlessly destroyed every year.
If you choose to open your heart and your home to a cat, dog, puppy, or kitten with cerebellar hypoplasia, you become a spokesperson and advocate for all pets with this condition. You will be able to spread the word that although these animals may be different, they are intelligent, loving, make great pets, and can live long, healthy, fulfilled, and happy lives!
Have you ever had a cat or dog with cerebellar hypoplasia? Please share your story with us in the comments below!