If you notice your cat suddenly staggering around, running into furniture with his head tilted to one side and unable to walk in a straight line, you might--understandably--worry that a serious injury or illness has occurred. While you should certainly take him to the veterinarian, the most common cause of these symptoms is vestibular syndrome, a nonthreatening disease of the inner ear.
The feline vestibular system contributes to your cat’s equilibrium in relation to gravity and the ground. It also controls the eye muscles so images are in focus and fixed and helps control your cat’s posture and muscle movement. Composed of the three semicircular canals of the cat’s inner ear and the hair cells within these canals that perceive fluid movement, this body system connects directly to the vestibular nerve. The vestibular nerve runs to a nerve bundle called the vestibular center that ends within the brain stem. According to Dr. Roger L. Welton of Maybeck Animal Hospital, “Disease of any part of this system leads to dysfunctions in balance, spatial orientation and overall equilibrium.”
Your cat can develop vestibular disease suddenly and with no prior illnesses. Typically found in older cats and more commonly diagnosed in the late summer and fall months, this syndrome is most often idiopathic (meaning with no known cause), according to the veterinarians at the Mar Vista Animal Medical Center. If your cat has a history of middle ear infections or is suspected of having a brain lesion that may be causing the syndrome her symptoms will be the same as the idiopathic version of the disease.
Typical symptoms of vestibular syndrome include a significant head tilt (usually to the side of the affected ear), uncoordinated walking, dizziness, falling down and nystagmus (repetitive back and forth eye movements). Your cat may become disoriented and cry out in his confusion, refusing to move. Some cats will circle repeatedly in one direction and become nauseated from motion sickness. Your pet may exhibit some signs of facial paralysis and/or eye changes including a drooping eyelid or "wandering" eye.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Your veterinarian will take a complete history and perform a thorough medical examination of your cat, including a neurological and ear examination, before beginning treatment. He might recommend running blood tests and a urinalysis to determine the general health of your pet, and possibly a head X-ray or CT scan. Once any other ailments are discounted and the vet diagnoses vestibular syndrome, treatment will begin.
Most cats with vestibular disease resolve the issue with little or no treatment over the course of a few weeks, according to Vetinfo.com. Your veterinarian may suggest a motion sickness medication such as meclizine (Antivert) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl) to alleviate some of the symptoms and help your pet feel better balanced.
Many pet owners worry that their cats have had strokes because of the head tilt and staggering, but diagnostic testing usually rules this out, according to PetPlace.com. Other conditions that may cause a cat to exhibit similar symptoms include head trauma, inner ear infections, middle ear polyps or cancer, thiamine deficiency and metronidazole (a gastrointestinal antibiotic) toxicity.