Cats are known for their agility, leaping effortlessly from one surface to another. So it’s understandable to worry if your nimble cat suddenly wobbles and seems a bit drunk.
A cat that becomes uncoordinated without warning could have vestibular disease, a rare condition that affects cats of all ages and breeds.
Vestibular disease is not life-threatening, but it can make cats uncomfortable. Recognizing the signs of illness will help you know when it’s time to take your wobbly kitty to the vet.
What is vestibular disease in cats?
Vestibular disease is a disorder of the vestibular system, which is responsible for balance and coordination. This system also helps cats to stay oriented and have a sense of direction.
The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and medulla (lower part of the brain), with nerves connecting the two locations.
When something affects the vestibular system, cats lose their balance and coordination.
What causes vestibular disease in cats?
In many cases, vestibular disease in cats is idiopathic, meaning the cause is unknown. Possible causes are listed below:
- Middle or inner ear infection
- Tumors, especially in older cats
- Medications that are toxic to the ear.
- Polyps (benign growths)
- inflammatory disease
- head trauma
Genetics can also play a role. Siamese and Burmese cats are prone to developing vestibular diseases.
What are the signs of vestibular disease in cats?
Signs of vestibular disease appear suddenly and are related to lack of coordination and balance.
A pronounced head tilt is a telltale sign of the disease. Other signs are listed below:
- circling to the side
- vocalizing anguished
- rolling on the ground
- Leaning against furniture or walls.
- Nystagmus (involuntary eye movement)
- Facial drooping (seen with tumors and inflammatory diseases)
Cats with vestibular disease will also experience nausea and vomiting and will refuse to eat.
The signs are often at their worst within 24 to 48 hours of onset and then begin to improve.
How is vestibular disease in cats diagnosed?
There are no specific tests to diagnose vestibular disease. Instead, a vet will use a history, physical exam, and a variety of diagnostic tests to diagnose the condition and try to identify the underlying cause.
Because the underlying cause may be serious, cats with signs of vestibular disease should receive immediate veterinary attention.
For the history, your vet will ask questions like the ones listed here:
- What symptoms have you noticed?
- When did the first symptoms appear?
- What medications is your cat currently taking?
- Has your cat suffered a recent head injury?
- Does your cat have a history of middle or inner ear infections?
The physical exam will also include an otoscopic exam (ear exam) and a neurological exam.
Diagnostic tests include blood tests, urinalysis, x-rays, and ear discharge analysis. Advanced diagnostic tests, such as MRIs, may be warranted if your vet believes the problem may lie deep within your cat’s brain or ear. A cerebrospinal fluid analysis may also be needed.
Even with diagnostic tests, remember that the cause of vestibular disease in cats often remains unknown.
What is the treatment for vestibular disease in cats?
Treatment for vestibular disease is based on the underlying cause, if that cause can be identified. For example, a bacterial ear infection will be treated with antibiotics. An inflammatory disease in the ear would be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs.
If that cause remains unknown, treatment will be symptomatic. For example, anti-nausea or vomiting medications will be prescribed to help reduce your cat’s nausea and vomiting.
Because vestibular disease causes cats to wobble and lose coordination, you’ll need to keep your cat safe and comfortable during treatment:
- Keep your cat in a safe, confined area to avoid injury.
- Move your cat’s food and water bowls and the litter box near your cat.
- Help your cat eat and drink until he regains his balance and coordination.
- Change your cat’s position every few hours to prevent pressure sores.
Cats with vestibular disease often make a full recovery in a few days to a few weeks, with no residual damage or recurrence. If the underlying cause is irreversible, a cat may continue to have symptoms despite treatment.