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“Robotic cat” illness mystifies vets

April 12, 2012
Courtesy of Sage Publications
and World Science staff

Sci­en­tists are on the hunt for a path­o­gen they say may be caus­ing a mys­tery con­di­tion af­flict­ing cats: they are start­ing to walk like robots.

Felines in Scot­land and pos­sibly north­ern Eu­rope have been af­fect­ed.

Walk­ing with an odd gait with stiff, ex­tend­ed tails, the an­i­mals – dubbed robotic cats due to their move­ments – are a vet­er­i­nary odd­ity un­seen be­fore, sci­en­tists say. Cats with a slightly dif­fer­ent but pos­sibly re­lat­ed con­di­tion have been spot­ted in Swe­den and Aus­tria, where it has been re­ferred to as “stag­ger­ing dis­ease.” 

A cat afflicted with a rare fe­line ill­ness that is puzz­ling doc­tors, and caus­ing cats to walk like ro­bots. Click here for a video. (Cour­tesy of Sage Pub­li­ca­tions)


Vet­eri­nar­i­ans have pub­lished a re­port on the phe­nom­e­non, cen­ter­ing on 21 cats seen from 2001 to 2010 at Strath­bo­gie Vet­er­i­nary Cen­tre, Huntly, and Mor­ven Vet­er­i­nary prac­tice, Al­ford, both in north­east­ern Scot­land. The re­port ap­peared Jan. 11 in the ad­vance on­line is­sue of the Jour­nal of Fe­line Med­i­cine and Sur­gery.

The cats seemed to have a slowly-pro­g­ress­ing neu­ro­lo­g­i­cal dis­ease, and to have de­vel­oped it start­ing at a late age, the re­search­ers said. The ill­ness did­n’t kill any of the fe­lines, they added, but over time ap­peared to make their lives so mis­er­a­ble that some own­ers de­cid­ed to have them put down.

Mi­cro­scop­ic ex­amina­t­ions in­i­tially sug­gested the pres­ence of a cen­tral nerv­ous sys­tem in­fec­tion called lym­pho­his­ti­ocy­tic menin­goen­ce­pha­lo­my­e­lit­is, the re­search­ers said. But no path­o­gen could be iden­ti­fied.

“All the cats in­clud­ed in our stu­dy, and most of the cats re­ported with ‘stag­ger­ing dis­ease,’ be­long to the ru­ral popula­t­ion ac­cus­tomed to hunt­ing birds and ro­dents,” said one of the stu­dy’s au­thors, Luisa De Ri­sio. “It can be spec­u­lat­ed that the ae­ti­o­lo­g­i­cal [caus­a­tive] agent may be trans­mit­ted from these an­i­mals to cats.”

The cats had out­door ac­cess and lived in the same ru­ral ar­ea, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers. When the vets looked at im­mune sys­tem mark­ers they found el­e­vat­ed lev­els of a pro­tein called inter­feron-in­duc­ible Mx. That is a sign that some­thing, wheth­er an envi­ron­men­tal agent or an in­fect­ion, was ac­ti­vat­ing the fe­lines’ im­mune sys­tem, they said. The au­thors con­cluded that the late on­set age of the dis­ease, its slow pro­gres­sion, pe­cu­liar clin­i­cal signs and the da­ta from the tests sug­gest all the cats were af­fect­ed by the same con­di­tion.


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Scientists are on the hunt for a pathogen they say may be causing a mystery condition afflicting cats: they are starting to walk like robots. Cats in Scotland and possibly northern Europe have been affected. Walking with an odd gait with stiff, extended tails, the animals – dubbed robotic cats due to their movements – are a veterinary oddity unseen before, scientists say. Cats with a slightly different but possibly related condition have been spotted in Sweden and Austria, where it has been referred to as “staggering disease.” Veterinarians have published a report on the phenomenon, centering on 21 cats seen at Strathbogie Veterinary Centre, Huntly, and Morven Veterinary practice, Alford, both in northeastern Scotland, between 2001 and 2010. The report appeared Jan. 11 in the advance online issue of the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. The cats seemed to have a slowly-progressing neurological disease, and to have developed it starting at a late age, the researchers said. The illness didn’t kill any of the felines, they added, but over time appeared to make their lives so miserable that some owners decided to have them put down. Microscopic examinations initially suggested the presence of a central nervous system infection called lymphohistiocytic meningoencephalomyelitis, the researchers said. But no pathogen could be identified. “All the cats included in our study, and most of the cats reported with ‘staggering disease’, belong to the rural population accustomed to hunting birds and rodents,” said one of the study’s authors, Luisa De Risio. “It can be speculated that the aetiological [causative] agent may be transmitted from these animals to cats.” The cats had outdoor access and lived in the same rural area, according to the researchers. When the vets looked at immune system markers they elevated levels of a protein called interferon-inducible Mx, a sign that something was activating the felines’ immune system, they said. The authors conclude that the late onset age of this disease, its slow progression, peculiar clinical signs and the data from the tests suggest the cats were affected by the same unique, previously unreported condition.