'Robot' cats - what is the strange disease affecting British cats?

A rare mystery disease which affects cats in rural areas of Scotland has veterinarians baffled. In the last two decades there have been around 50 cases; 21 of these in just two surgeries in the Scottish highlands.

This strange disease causes the legs and tail of afflicted cats to become unnaturally rigid; so that the stiffening tail sticks out straight behind the cat. As the tail loses its flexibility, the cat is unable to use it at all. This stiff tail and the rigid walk caused by the stiffening of the legs has caused investigators to nickname the condition ‘living robots’ . However, the illness is more sinister than this name suggests. As the disease progresses, cats become more and more disoriented and unable to groom themselves. The personality of the cat also undergoes unpredictable changes. Many cats became more affectionate, but in some cases the cats became aggressive.

Not only is there no cure for the disease - vets have not even any idea what causes it. Jeannette Andrew from the Strathbogie Veterinary Centre in Aberdeenshire and Danielle Gunn-Moore Professor of feline medicine at Edinburgh University have both been closely involved in studies of this condition.

'They look like robots.They get a bit lost and get stuck in corners and don't know how to reverse and turn round ...Their head is forward, their chin is slightly down, their ears are forward and they have a very stiff walk and a stiff tail' - describe the researchers.

Efforts to find a virus, or in fact anything else which might cause the disease, have so far come up with nothing. Professor Gunn-Moore explains: 'We have looked in the blood, in the brain fluid and in brain sections. We have looked for the presence of viruses in the brain and so far we've been able to rule out vast numbers [of possibilities] but can't find the one that's causing it.'

What is known is that all affected cats were outdoor cats, and the disease does not spread from cat to cat. Therefore it looks likely that the cats became ill from something they ate while they were outdoors. This makes the most likely suspect a mutant virus carried by mice or voles.

If so, the virus has not spread very far. All but one of the cats with the mystery condition were from the Scottish highlands with the outbreak apparently centred in the rural area between Inverness and Aberdeen. One cat was diagnosed in Liverpool, but there is a strong possibility that this cat also contracted the disease in the Highlands.

Although there have been 50 reported cases, the researchers believe that the number may be higher, and some ill cats were simply not reported.

Attempted treatments have included painkillers, vitamins, antibiotics and the drugs normally given to multiple sclerosis sufferers. None of these has had any noticeable effect, and as the disease progressed all the cats became increasingly disabled. Once things got to the point where the cats could no longer swallow food, they had to be euthanized. Most of the cats with the strange disease ended by being euthanized within a year of falling ill.

A similar condition, known as 'staggering disease' has been seen in Sweden and Austria, but the stiff tail seems to be unique to Scottish cats, so it is not clear if the same thing is causing the disease in Scotland as in the other countries.

The video below shows a cat with the mystery 'robot' condition described above. Note that the video might be upsetting for some viewers.


Note: This information is for guidance only. It is not intended to replace consultation with a licensed practitioner.

cat health
cat info
get a cat
cat travel
Home     What's new     Contact Us