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'Tom and Jerry Syndrome': Certain Sounds Can Trigger Seizures in Cats

Some cats have seizures in response to high-pitched sounds such as the crinkling of tinfoil, a study has found.
Image: A 16-year-old cat that experiences feline audiogenic reflex seizures
Kuching Mahal (which means 'cat expensive' in Indonesian), a 16-year-old Birman that experiences feline audiogenic reflex seizures.Photo courtesy of Sarie Gilbertson
/ Source: NBC News

The United Kingdom-based charity International Cat Care reached out to veterinary specialists after receiving surprising complaints from cat owners: Their feline companions were apparently having seizures in response to high-pitched sounds.

A study of these cats revealed that the sound-induced seizures were more common in older cats, and the most common triggers were crinkling tinfoil, hitting a ceramic bowl with a metal spoon and tapping glass.

Mark Lowrie and Laurent Garosi, veterinary neurologists at Davies Veterinary Specialists in England, and Robert Harvey, a molecular neuroscientist and geneticist at the University College London School of Pharmacy, decided to survey cat owners about the phenomenon, which has been dubbed "Tom and Jerry syndrome," after the cartoon character Tom, who often responds to startling sounds with involuntary jerks. [Feline Fun: 10 Surprising Facts About Cats]

Kuching Mahal (which means 'cat expensive' in Indonesian), a 16-year-old Birman that experiences feline audiogenic reflex seizures.Photo courtesy of Sarie Gilbertson

Hundreds of cat owners from around the world replied that they had noticed their cats were having seizures in response to certain types of sounds. Most owners' vets didn't know what was causing the seizures and didn't believe a sound had been the trigger.

In a study published Monday (April 27) in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, the researchers looked at data from 96 cats, including the type of seizure, how long it lasted and what sound appeared to trigger it. They found that some cats — like some humans — suffer from seizures caused by sound, known as "audiogenic reflex seizures." In the cats, certain sounds triggered absence (or nonconvulsive) seizures; myoclonic seizures, characterized by brief muscle jerks; or generalized tonic-clonic seizures, in which the animal loses consciousness and its body stiffens and jerks for several minutes.

Both pedigree and nonpedigree cats can have these seizures, but they were most common in Birman-breed cats. Seizures were also more common in cats ages 10 to 19, and the average age of onset was 15 years, the researchers said.

The sounds that triggered the seizures ran the gamut, including crinkling tinfoil (82 cats), a metal spoon clanking on a ceramic food bowl (79 cats), chinking or tapping glass (72 cats), crinkling paper or plastic bags (71 cats), computer keyboard or mouse sounds (61 cats), jingling coins or keys (59 cats), hammering a nail (38 cats) and the clicking of an owner's tongue (24 cats). Less commonly, cellphone ringing, Velcro peeling or a walk across a wooden floor with bare feet could trigger the kitty seizures.

— Tanya Lewis, Live Science

This is a condensed version of a report from Live Science. Read the full report. Follow Tanya Lewis on Twitter. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+.