Ataxia is a symptom, not a disease. It is a general set of behaviors that indicates a loss of control of normal body movements – sometimes causing rocking, shaking, and loss of balance. It is typically caused by the destruction of myelin in nerve cells; this is the more common mechanism for human diseases such as MS. However, ataxia in Turkish Angora cats has posed a new and unique problem. The ataxia we are seeing in a small portion of our gene pool is marked by similar symptoms, but it is not yet clear what is causing the disease or its progression. This makes our challenge more daunting – we are working against an unknown.
The disease has already been screened and compared to other known feline diseases which cause ataxia, such as GM1 and 2. Lysosomal storage disease has been ruled out through pathological testing. It has also been proven not to be cerebellar hypoplasia, or other diseases known to be caused by viruses in the womb; in fact, the cerebellum is far more normal in ataxic TA kittens than would be expected with this type of problem. Researchers now suspect it could be driven by an inner ear disorder – we have been able to rule so much out thanks to the work of cooperative breeders, and only more of the same will find the answer!
The onset of symptoms in this disease is 2-4 weeks, generally just after the kittens begin to walk. They will begin to shake, and will generally have a downward progression. There is a varying progression of the disease – some kittens, with age, appear to partially compensate; it does not always progress at the same rate, and in many cases, the progression is severe and fatal.
What to do if you suspect ataxia:
If you have reason to believe one or more of your kittens have ataxia, do not panic. Its penetrance so far indicates it is likely a simple recessive. It is important to know there is nothing you can do in your home that will help the kitten, other than assistive care and hoping for the best. However, you can help immensely by working with your vet, and with Lorraine Shelton, to help us find out more about this disease.
Contact Lorraine at firstname.lastname@example.org and let her know you have an affected kitten. If you can, take videos of your affected kittens – seeing the type of movement and progression of the disease will assist in its classification. Ask your vet to draw 3ccs of whole blood in an EDTA (purple top) tube. At this time, because the focus has shifted to a study of an inner ear disorder, it would be most helpful to transport a LIVE kitten affected by the disease to researchers. Any such kitten will NOT be “experimented on” – it is vital to researchers that they be able to work with the most viable, best quality tissue – this means a necropsy immediately following humane euthanasia. ALL information will be kept strictly confidential. We have a specialist ready to do the testing we need to rule an inner ear disorder in or out. Any kitten sent to the lab will be treated with the highest of ethical and humane standards.
You can do more – if you have a KNOWN carrier – a cat who has thrown ataxia, male or female – when you spay/neuter the cat, save the tissue and have your vet save it in sterile saline or alcohol (saline preferred – but do NOT use formalin), cutting the tissue open to allow the solution to penetrate the tissue. These tissues can then be sent at Lorraine’s direction, also with a blood sample, for archiving at UC Davis, to help us find gene markers. Cheek swabs from littermates to ataxic kittens, as well as prior and subsequent siblings, will also assist in locating the gene responsible.