Vestibular Disease in Cats

Siamese Kitten laying in a brown grassy field

It can be more than a little alarming to find that your cat is suddenly falling over and unable to get around normally. Although you may worry about a stroke, your cat's difficulty with mobility could also be due to something called Vestibular Disease.

What is Vestibular Disease in Cats?

Sometimes called Feline Idiopathic Vestibular Disease or Feline Vestibular Syndrome, vestibular disease in cats is a process that affects the vestibular center of your cat's brain. When properly functioning, the brain's vestibular center serves to help your cat with balance, coordination, and limb awareness.

There are two main types of vestibular disease in cats. Central Vestibular Disease occurs when a brain infection or tumor adversely affects your cat's vestibular center. Peripheral Vestibular Disease occurs when the nerves of the ear or brain are impacted.

Vestibular disease can occur in cats of all ages and breeds, although certain breeds, such as the Siamese and Burmese, have been shown to suffer from a congenital form of the disease.

Symptoms of Vestibular Disease in Cats

  • Uncoordinated gait
  • Circling to one side
  • Head tilt
  • Rapid eye movement
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea/vomiting

The most prevalent symptom of vestibular disease in cats is an uncoordinated gait or falling over. Your cat may also circle to one side. While your cat is stumbling around you may also notice a head tilt and/or a rapid eye movement called nystagmus. In severe cases, your cat may start to exhibit signs of nausea, turning their nose up at their food, and they may also start vomiting.

Some owners may find their cat circling and falling over and think they have had a stroke. Fortunately, strokes are not nearly as commonly seen in cats as they are in people.

If your cat were to have a stroke, it would most likely be due to either hyperthyroidism, chronic kidney disease, or a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. While these individual disease processes can be seen in geriatric cats, a cat suffering from a stroke is still considered to be a rare occurrence.

Causes of Vestibular Disease in Cats

As the alternative disease name of Feline Idiopathic Vestibular Disease would infer, the vast majority of cases in cats are idiopathic. This is just a fancy way of saying the true, underlying cause of the disease is not known.

Occasionally your cat may suffer from vestibular disease due to a middle or inner ear infection. Even rarer cases of vestibular disease in cats may be caused by a tumor in the brain.

Diagnosing Vestibular Disease in Cats

Unfortunately, there is not any one specific test that can diagnose vestibular disease in cats. Rather, a diagnosis is made based on physical examination, history, and clinical signs. If a more serious illness, such as an inner ear infection or brain tumor, is to blame, advanced testing such as an MRI, ear cultures, spinal fluid analysis, and basic blood work may uncover it.

Treating Vestibular Disease in Cats

Since most cases of vestibular disease in cats are idiopathic, the treatment is mainly supportive. Your vet may prescribe a medication that works to prevent nausea and vomiting. If your cat's balance is severely impacted, they may require subtle changes in their living situation.

Low-entry litterboxes, preventing access to high surfaces they may fall off of, and bringing their food and water bowls to them until they regain some sense of balance may be needed.

Cats suffering from idiopathic vestibular disease usually make a full recovery within a few weeks. Depending on the duration and severity of the flare-up, there may be some lingering effects with their gait, but, for the most part, they fully recover.

If your cat's vestibular disease stems from a middle or inner ear problem, your vet will want to treat the underlying infection. Antibiotics and/or antifungals may be prescribed to be given both orally and into your cat's ear canals.

For cats diagnosed with a brain tumor, there are options for treatment as well. Your vet can refer you to a veterinary oncologist to pursue things like chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and even surgery if the tumor is located in an operable area of the brain.

Of course, if you would rather just try to keep your cat as comfortable as possible, your vet can treat them palliatively.