Pacing in Cats

Summary

Pacing is rarely observed in cats. The primary conditions that cause pacing are often accompanied by other symptoms. These conditions vary greatly and range from non-life threatening (such as boredom) to an emergency situation (such as a cat who has ingested a toxin). It is important to observe your cat for any additional symptoms that may accompany pacing and examine your cat’s environment for evidence of potential toxin exposure or injury. If your cat is otherwise fine and intermittent pacing is the only symptom, continue monitoring for any changes. If you are concerned about changes in your cat’s behavior but there are no other obvious symptoms, seek non-urgent veterinary care. In addition to a physical exam, diagnostic tools for identifying the cause of pacing may include blood work and diagnostic imaging. Treatment varies depending on the condition the pacing is associated with.

Guidelines

Pacing alone is not a cause for concern if the cat is otherwise healthy and not displaying other symptoms. If pacing is accompanied by other symptoms, seek veterinary care. Pacing is not an indicator of an emergency in and of itself.

Possible Causes

Pacing is associated with the following conditions, disorders or syndromes in cats. Note: aside from behavioral reasons like boredom, these conditions all have other, more prevalent symptoms. 

• Reproduction: female cats will often pace when they are in estrus (heat) and in association with labor while queening (having kittens). 

Toxicosis: ingestion of a toxin can cause neurological symptoms which include pacing.

• Liver diseases: when the liver isn’t functioning properly, the central nervous system can be affected. Neurological symptoms like pacing can result. 

•Endocrine diseases:  hyperthyroidism and central diabetes insipidus are examples of endocrine diseases that can show pacing. 

• Tumor: the presence of a tumor can cause neurological symptoms that include pacing.

• Injury: trauma, especially to the head, can cause neurological symptoms that include pacing. Pain associated with injury can also cause a cat to pace as it can not find a comfortable place to rest.

• Cognitive dysfunction: a condition that causes loss of memory and changes in awareness. This can cause a cat to get lost and continually pace.

• Behavioral conditions: a cat suffering from anxiety, boredom or agitation might pace.

Risk Factors

Pacing in cats may be characterized by:

• Frequency: how often is the cat pacing? Is it constant or done occasionally?

• Development: did this symptom suddenly arise (acute) or has it been present long-term (chronic)?

• Persistent, sudden pacing where the cat appears unable to stop may be an indicator of an emergency: seek immediate veterinary attention if this is observed.

Testing and Diagnosis

A cat who has been observed pacing may require the following diagnostics to determine the root cause and course of action:

• Physical examination: the veterinarian will look for outward signs that may be causing the symptom, such as late term pregnancy, visible injury or neurologic deficits.

• Blood work: this provides useful information about the pet’s overall health status and can suggest underlying causes like thyroid disease, infection, or toxicosis.

• Diagnostic imaging: ultrasound, X-rays, fluoroscopy, CT scan or MRI imaging may be utilized in an effort to reveal abnormalities that may be causing the cat to pace.

Similar Symptoms

A cat that is engaged in play may pace back and forth. This is expected to be temporary and is not concerning.

Associated Symptoms

If a cat is pacing due to  a medical condition, they may present with many additional symptoms, including:

• Restlessness

• Circling

• Ataxia (inability to walk normally)

• Vocalization

• Staring into space

• Head pressing

• Seizures

• Vomiting

As noted above, pacing in cats is sometimes associated with more serious illnesses. Given this, pacing may be observed alongside emergency symptoms requiring immediate veterinary assistance.

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