As a cat owner, you've likely witnessed some impressive feats as your cat leaps, twirls and navigates surfaces that seem perilous. If your cat is uncharacteristically clumsy, perhaps staggering or falling, she should see her vet. Equilibrium problems in cats aren't uncommon and have a variety of potential causes and treatments.
Feline Vestibular System
Your cat's ear contains her vestibular organs, including her vestibular apparatus, or labyrinth, the utricle and saccule. This tiny system provides information to her brain about body position relative to gravity, such as whether she's upside down, upright or falling. The system also coordinates information from her eyes, paws and brains, so everything is in sync as she walks, allowing her to maintain her balance and clear vision while she moves.
Signs of Vestibular Disease
If you see equilibrium problems in your cat, it could be a sign that her vestibular system and brain aren't communicating properly. Other signs of vestibular disease in cats include:
- Head tilting
- Walking in circles
- Falling or rolling to one side
- Rapid eye movements
- Low crouching when walking
- Head shaking
- Stumbling or loss of coordination, otherwise known as ataxia.
Causes of Vestibular Disease
There are a variety of potential causes for vestibular disease in cats, including:
- Middle or inner ear infections, including ear mites
- Reaction to certain drugs, such as antibiotics
- Head trauma
- Brain finection
- Thiamin deficiency
Usually, vestibular disease is idiopathic, meaning no direct cause is established.
Treating Vestibular Disease
The vet will look for a cause based on the cat's symptoms and medical history, occasionally using blood tests and imaging to determine if there's a serious underlying cause. If the vet determines the cat has idiopathic vestibular disease, the vet may prescribe anti-nausea medication to help with motion sickness. Generally, idiopathic vestibular disease clears up on its own within three weeks, and improvement, such as reduced eye movement, is noticeable after a few days. Occasionally a cat maintains a slight head tilt, but is otherwise unaffected by the condition.
If the vet is able to determine a cause for the disruption to the vestibular system, such as an infection, treatment is geared toward addressing the problem.
Help your cat by providing ample lighting and a quiet resting space while she recovers. Avoid the temptation to carry her because she will fare better using her paw pads to sense where she is and get around, allowing her vestibular system to recalibrate itself.
Ataxia in Cats
Ataxia is one of the symptoms of feline vestibular disease and is sensory dysfunction resulting in coordination loss of the limbs, trunk and or/head. In addition to vestibular ataxia, a cat can suffer from cerebellar and proprioceptive ataxia, also known as sensory ataxia, potentially prompting equilibrium problems. Sensory ataxia presents when the cat's spinal cord is slowly compressed, affecting her balance because she misplaces her feet. Cerebellar ataxia is caused by damage to the cerebellum, resulting in poor balance, coordination loss and an abnormal gait. This is an inherited disease that has no cure, and kittens tend to show signs by 2 months of age.