Spinal Muscular Atrophy in Cats

Spinal muscular atrophy is a condition that currently has been discovered only in Maine Coon Cats. This disorder affects muscular movement and can lead to disability. Cats that are born with this condition can survive and lead healthy lives, despite the disability to motor functionality.

Spinal Muscular Atrophy

Spinal muscular atrophy is a hereditary disease that is passed along via a recessive trait. This means that both parents of an affected kitten must be carriers of the defective gene. This disorder causes an ongoing loss of nerve cells in the spinal cord, leading to a reduction in muscle mass over time. Kittens with this disorder will typically begin to show signs at 3 to 4 months of age.

What to Look For

There are signs to look for if you suspect spinal muscular atrophy in your kitten. Ability of movement will rapidly decline as the kitten ages, especially in the hind legs.

1. The disease will usually first produce a slight sway to the hind quarters when the kitten walks or runs. 2. Legs will start to appear bowed or deformed while the kitten is standing. 3. This will progress to the inability to jump up and potential loss of balance or clumsiness when jumping down.

By 5 months old, the disability will be visibly apparent from stance. Forelimbs will generally be spaced widely and hind limbs will swagger and sway back and forth. Kittens with longer hair may hide this condition well, but a simple hand check of the limbs can reveal the reduction in muscle mass.

By 8 months old, the rapid decline begins to taper off.

Prognosis for Spinal Muscular Atrophy

Spinal muscular atrophy does not appear to cause pain in cats, and does not affect mental abilities. Rapid or shallow breathing may occur, but the kitten or cat will appear normal and healthy in every other way. Indoor cats with this disorder can often go on to lead healthy and long lives of up to 9 years of age or longer. Effects of this disorder vary by cat, however. Some cats may still be able to move about on all four limbs for many years, while others can experience complete paralysis of the hind legs by a very young age.

Testing for Spinal Muscular Atrophy

There are no treatment options for spinal muscular atrophy in cats and there is no cure for this disorder. While the trait must be passed from both parents to the kitten, the parents carrying this gene may show no visible signs of the disease. If carriers are bred, the percentage of affected kittens will vary. Testing has been developed to allow breeders to check for the presence of this gene in cats they wish to breed. Discovering whether or not the parents are carriers can help to prevent kittens from being affected and help stop the spread of this debilitating disorder. A simple cheek swab, blood test or check of frozen semen can reveal distortions in the DNA that lead to spinal muscular atrophy. Affected kittens can also be subjected to this test for final confirmation and diagnosis.