How To Tell If Your Cat Is Special Needs? (Identifying The Signs)

How To Tell If Your Cat Is Special Needs?

Each cat has its own distinct personality, quirks, and abilities. But did you know that some cats face unique challenges and require extra care and attention?

Special needs kitties hold a dear place in our hearts, and it’s vital for cat owners to recognize and address their unique needs.

Cats with special needs are usually born with a physical or mental defect that requires special care. There are some obvious signs to look out for to identify these traits. Having a special needs cat does not mean that your cat can’t live a good normal life. 

In this article, we will explore the world of special needs cats, shedding light on how to identify their distinct traits and provide the tailored care they deserve. 

What Does It Mean To Be A Special Needs Cat?

Simply put, a cat that is special needs is one that requires care that goes above and beyond what is usually required for your average cat. 

These are cats that might have been born with disabilities, developed them later in life or caused by an external traumatic experience. 

By understanding what disability your cat has, you are then able to provide the best care possible. 

We can categorize special needs cats into the following:

  • Physical disabilities
  • Cognitive challenges
  • Sensory impairments
  • Chronic illnesses

Physical Disabilities

Cats can be born with a variety of physical disabilities that may affect their mobility or overall health. 

Here are some common physical disabilities in cats.

Cerebellar Hypoplasia

Cerebellar hypoplasia is a neurological disorder in cats that affects the development of the cerebellar in the brain. 

The cerebellar controls balance, coordination and fine motor skills in both cats and humans. 

Cats with Cerebellar hypoplasia get it from birth and its severity depends on how underdeveloped the cerebellar is. 

It is common to see cats with this condition shaking their heads even while they eat.

Causes Of Cerebellar Hypoplasia

The main cause of cerebellar hypoplasia in cats is largely due to the feline panleukopenia virus (FPV)1

This virus is very contagious and has a high mortality rate. 

An infected pregnant cat can easily pass on this virus to her unborn kittens which will then attack the cerebella of the kitten leading to underdevelopment. 

Symptoms Of Cerebellar Hypoplasia

This condition is affectionately known as ‘wobbly cat’ syndrome because that is how your cat will look like. 

Common symptoms include:

  • Unsteady gait or difficulty 
  • Poor coordination and balance
  • Trembling
  • Head bobbing or jerky head movements
  • Rapid or involuntary eye movements

If you have a kitten that has cerebellar hypoplasia, these symptoms should be obvious as they start to show when the kitten is only a few weeks old. 

Treatment For Cerebellar Hypoplasia

“Although this condition might seem serious, your cat is more than able to live a long healthy life.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t a cure for this neurological problem but that doesn’t mean your cat can’t lead a fulfilling life with proper care and support. 

Since many of these cats have cerebellar hypoplasia as kittens, most cats are able to quickly adapt to this condition.

There are a few things you can do to help make things a lot easier for your cat. 

  • Physical therapy
  • Prevent your cat from jumping and using the stairs
  • Safe padded environment
  • Visiting the vet with your cat regularly

Although this condition might seem serious, your cat is more than able to live a long healthy life. 

Limb Deformities

“A kitten can have perfect limbs at birth but they can start to deteriorate or not grow properly as it gets older.”

Limb deformities can affect a cat at any time and can have an impact on its comfort, mobility and quality of life. 

Causes Of Limb Deformities

There are three main causes of limb deformities in cats.


This occurs when the kitten is born due to birth defects. There are some cat breeds that are more prone to this problem like the Munchkin and Scottish fold. 

In some cases, physical abnormalities can be caused by environmental factors affecting the cat during pregnancy.

If the mother cat has been exposed to toxins or infections, these triggers can affect the proper development of her kittens. 


A kitten can have perfect limbs at birth but they can start to deteriorate or not grow properly as it gets older. 

Deformities that occur during the cat’s growth can be a consequence of improper nutrition, infection, or trauma that disrupts normal bone development and growth.


Cats are curious creatures and tend to get themselves into bad situations at times. 

Some accidents are serious enough to cause permanent limb damage to your cat. 

If you allow your cat to roam outdoors, there is also a huge risk of your cat getting involved in a car accident or bad fights with other cats. 

Limb deformities caused by accidents or injuries may result in misaligned bones or damaged soft tissues that affect the cat’s mobility and limb function.

Types Of Limb Deformities 

The more common types of limb deformities in cats are:

  • Radial Agenesis (absence or underdevelopment of the radius bone)
  • Angular Limb (bent or twisted limbs)
  • Brachydactyly (shortened toes)
  • Polydactyly (presence of extra toes)
  • Arthrogryposis (limited range of motion)

Out of the above types, radial agenesis, angular limb and arthrogryposis are more severe in nature as they can really affect your cat’s mobility. 

Symptoms Of Limb Deformities

If your cat has a limb deformity, it will definitely have trouble with its mobility. 

Symptoms include:

  • Abnormal bone structure
  • Difficulty walking or moving
  • Pain or discomfort when moving
  • Limping or 
  • Swelling or inflammation
  • Malformation of joints

Treatment For Limb Deformities 

If your cat has trouble with its mobility, you need to get it to the vet for a physical examination. 

The vet will have to take an x-ray or scan of the affected limb to diagnose the severity of the deformity. 

In some cases, surgery can help improve your cat’s mobility by adjusting the bone or joint. 

Otherwise, you will have to help your cat manage the symptoms with anti-inflammatory meds and physical therapy. 

Make sure that your cat is at a healthy weight so that it doesn’t put much pressure on the affected limb. 

Sensory Impairments

sleeping kitten

If your cat has one or more of its senses impaired, that means it has lost its ability to see, hear or smell. 

But when a cat loses one of its senses, the others are taken up a few notches to make up for it. 

Vision Impairment

It is possible for your cat to be born blind or lose its vision as it gets older. 

Cats that are not able to see will have trouble navigating height elevation and moving around in general. 

Causes of visual loss in cats can be due to:

  • genetic predisposition
  • eye infections
  • injuries
  • cataracts
  • glaucoma
  • retinal diseases
  • age-related degeneration

Treatment Options

It can be difficult for you to realize a loss of vision in your cat if it is not born with this condition. 

If you notice a change in your cat’s behavior such as starting to bump into things, looking disorientated in the dark or no change in pupil size, take your cat to the vet immediately.

Normal cats can see very well in the dark, up to 6 times better than a human’s night vision.

Medication or surgery can help to improve your cat’s vision but in most cases, there’s not much that can be done. 

Hearing Impairment

A loss of hearing in cats can be due to genetics, repeated exposure to loud noise, ear infection or age. 

My cat is almost deaf in his right ear due to a very bad ear infection that he had as a kitten. 

The infection caused some damage to his eardrum but it was never a problem for him. 

If your cat doesn’t react to noises or is easily startled by noise, that could mean a problem with its hearing. 

Treatment Options

If your cat’s sense of hearing is being impacted by an infection, the faster you get the infection cleared, the less damage will be done. 

But if the hearing loss is genetic or caused by trauma to your cat’s ears then there’s not much that can be done. 

Smell Impairment

“If it can’t smell its food, it won’t have much of an appetite.”

A loss of smell for a cat is in my opinion the worse of the three. 

Normal cats are so dependent on smell in their daily lives that losing their ability to smell can be very distressing. 

Cats use smell to figure out their environment and more importantly to eat. 

The way to your cat’s stomach is through its nose. 

If it can’t smell its food, it won’t have much of an appetite. 

The most common causes of smell impairment are respiratory infection and nasal cancer. 

Treatment Options

If your cat is sneezing, has trouble breathing or has nasal discharge, this could mean a respiratory problem. 

Depending on the cause, it can be cured with antibiotics or surgery. 

In order to make your cat’s food more palatable, you can try warming it up a little or adding some homemade bone broth to your cat’s food. 

How Do I Know If My Cat Has A Mental Disability?

There is an ongoing debate in the medical community when it comes to mental disability in cats and other animals. 

It is medically possible to diagnose and measure mental disabilities in humans such as autism and down syndrome. 

But we do not have the veterinary expertise to make such a call in cats yet. 

Although cats may not have similar mental disabilities as humans do, they can still develop behavioral traits that can impact their lives. 

These issues can be related to feline behavior such as:

  • Dementia
  • Post traumatic stress disorder
  • Feline hyperesthesia syndrome
  • Depression
  • Severe anxiety
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder

Can Cats Have Down Syndrome?

“Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that is specific only to humans.”

You might have come across articles claiming that there are some cats out there with down syndrome.

These cats have unusual facial features such as upturned eyes, broad noses and weird-looking ears. 

The physical abnormalities might be in line with a human with down syndrome but it is just a birth defect in cats. 

It is not scientifically possible for a cat to have down syndrome due to the number of chromosomes that they have. 

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that is specific only to humans. 

It is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21. 

Scientists have stated that “cats have18 autosomal pairs and the sex chromosomes, X and Y2

This makes it impossible for cats to have down syndrome like humans.

Something different in cats happens when it has an extra chromosome. 

Calico cats are known to be only female. 

But if a male cat has an extra X chromosome, it will be a calico cat. 

This is called Klinefelter syndrome and it happens in 1 out of 3000 cats. 


1. Stuetzer B, Hartmann K Feline parvovirus infection and associated diseases

2. Leslie A. Lyons The Feline Genome and Clinical Implications

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