Vestibular Disease in Cats; Complete Guide for 2023

Vestibular disease is a common neurological disorder that affects a cat’s balance and coordination. 

However, the symptoms are similar to many different medical issues and it is very difficult to tell them apart. 

To understand this complex condition, this article will guide you through everything you need to know about vestibular disease in cats including symptoms, types of disease, treatment options, and prognosis. 

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What is Vestibular Disease in Cats?

Vestibular disease is a condition that affects a cat’s balance and coordination. It can be caused by ear infections, exposure to toxins or drugs, stroke, trauma, injury, tumors, or hypothyroidism. 

Certain breeds of cats have also been associated with a hereditary form of vestibular disease, and it can be present from birth as a congenital defect for both cats and dogs.

The Vestibular System in Cats

The vestibular system in cats consists of two main parts: 

  1. The peripheral vestibular system located in the inner ear 
  2. The central vestibular system within the brain. 

These two components work together to help the cat maintain balance and spatial awareness by constantly sending and receiving sensory information. 

The inner ear contains specialized structures called semicircular canals, which detect changes in head position, while the central vestibular system processes this information and coordinates with the eyes, limbs, and spinal cord to ensure proper balance and movement.

Symptoms of Vestibular Disease in Cats

The symptoms of vestibular disease in cats usually appear suddenly and may include: 

  • incoordination, 
  • falling or circling to one side, 
  • involuntary darting of the eyes back and forth (nystagmus),
  • head tilt, 
  • nausea or vomiting, 
  • Some owners may describe their cat as having vertigo, being off balance, or having had a stroke.
  • Behavioral Changes: disorientation, anxiety, depression, and lethargy. The affected cat may also become more vocal, especially when it is struggling with balance or experiencing discomfort.

If you suspect your cat has vestibular disease, have them evaluated by a veterinarian. 

To diagnose the condition, your veterinarian will physically examine your cat and look inside their ears for signs of infection or inflammation. 

Additional tests, such as bloodwork, imaging, or a referral to a veterinary neurologist, may be needed depending on the underlying cause of the disease.

Causes of Vestibular Disease in Cats

There are multiple potential causes of vestibular disease in cats, including: 

  • ear infections, 
  • head trauma, 
  • congenital abnormalities, 
  • certain medications, 
  • In some cases, the cause remains unknown, referred to as an idiopathic vestibular disease
  • In addition to these causes, older cats may be more susceptible to developing the vestibular disease, often referred to as ‘geriatric vestibular syndrome.’

Types of Vestibular Disease

There are four types of vestibular disease in cats:

Peripheral vestibular disease  

Peripheral vestibular disease is often caused by inflammation, infection, or damage to the inner ear structures.

The clinical signs associated with peripheral vestibular disease in cats are often most severe during the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours. 

Many cats begin to improve within seventy-two hours. The head tilt and stumbling often improve over a seven to ten-day period. 

Most patients are completely recovered within two to three weeks, although some may have residual symptoms.

Central vestibular disease

Unlike peripheral vestibular disease, which affects the inner ear and is often caused by infection, inflammation, or injury, central vestibular disease is caused by issues within the brain itself. 

These can include tumors, strokes, or other neurological disorders

Treatment for central vestibular disease will depend on the underlying cause and may include medications, surgery, or supportive care to manage symptoms

Idiopathic vestibular disease

Idiopathic vestibular disease in cats is a condition where the cause is unknown, and it can affect cats of any age. 

The most common symptom of vestibular disease in cats is dizziness, and cats may have difficulty standing or walking straight. 

They may also display rapid eye movements, called nystagmus, and sometimes tilt their head to one side. 

To diagnose the condition, a veterinarian will perform a physical examination of the cat and examine the ears for signs of infection or inflammation.

The treatment of idiopathic vestibular disease in cats is generally focused on reducing motion sickness, nausea, and vomiting. 

There is no cure for idiopathic vestibular disease in cats, but supportive care can help manage the symptoms and improve the cat’s quality of life. 

Geriatric vestibular syndrome

Geriatric vestibular syndrome (GVS) is a condition that affects the vestibular system in older cats. This syndrome is more commonly seen in dogs, but it is possible for cats to develop it as well. 

Symptoms of GVS in cats can include disorientation, difficulty walking or standing, head tilt, rapid eye movements, and nausea. 

Treatment for GVS in cats is supportive and based on the cat’s symptoms. It may include anti-nausea medication to decrease vomiting and help with motion sickness, as well as topical skin care for cats that cannot walk or hold themselves in position for normal urination and defecation, to prevent urine scald, bed sores, and skin infections. 

While the symptoms of GVS can be severe, the condition is not typically life-threatening and most cats will gradually recover over time.

Although peripheral vestibular disease is more common in cats, all types can cause similar symptoms, making it difficult for pet owners and even veterinarians to distinguish between them without further diagnostic tests.

Diagnosing Vestibular Disease in Cats

Diagnosing vestibular disease in cats involves a thorough veterinary examination, specialized diagnostic tests, and, in some cases, ruling out other conditions that could cause similar symptoms.

Veterinary Examination

The first step in diagnosing vestibular disease is a comprehensive physical examination by a veterinarian. The vet will assess the cat’s neurological function, check for signs of ear infection, and evaluate the cat’s overall health. This examination helps determine whether the cat has peripheral or central vestibular disease, aiding in further diagnostic procedures and treatment decisions.

Diagnostic Tests

If the veterinarian suspects vestibular disease, they may recommend diagnostic tests such as blood tests, X-rays, or computed tomography (CT) scans to gain more information about the cat’s condition. 

In some cases, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan may be necessary to evaluate the brain and inner ear structures more closely. These tests are crucial in identifying the underlying cause of vestibular disease and ruling out other neurological disorders.

Ruling Out Other Conditions

To rule out other conditions that can mimic the symptoms of vestibular disease in cats, such as brain tumors, meningitis, encephalitis, and toxic exposure is the key to determining the most effective treatment plan and managing the cat’s symptoms.

Vestibular Disease in Cats: Treatment

The treatment plan for vestibular disease in cats is focused on reducing motion sickness, nausea, and vomiting. Medications can be prescribed to mitigate nausea and vertigo, which may include anti-nausea medication or antibiotics if an ear infection is present

Depending on the severity and progression of the vestibular healing cycle, a cat may also be temporarily admitted for intravenous fluids to ward off dehydration.

Many cats require assistance eating and drinking during the initial stages of the condition when their balance is most affected.

 The use of steroids is also sometimes recommended to reduce inflammation and speed up the healing process.

Procedures such as cleaning the ear canal and removal of ear wax or debris may also be necessary. 

In severe cases, hospitalization may be required to monitor the cat’s condition and provide supportive care.

Home remedy for vestibular disease in cats

In addition to medications and procedures, there are some home remedies that can help alleviate the symptoms of vestibular disease in cats. 

  1. Providing a quiet and comfortable environment can help reduce stress and promote healing. 
  2. Keeping the cat’s head elevated and providing a soft bed or mat can also help reduce dizziness and improve balance. 
  3. Feeding small, frequent meals throughout the day and providing plenty of water can also help with recovery.

Some cat owners and veterinarians may explore alternative therapies such as 

  • acupuncture, 
  • physiotherapy, 
  • chiropractic care to alleviate symptoms and improve the cat’s quality of life. 

These treatments may be beneficial in conjunction with traditional medications and supportive care. However, it is essential to discuss these options with your veterinarian before pursuing alternative therapies

Symptoms Severity and Duration of Symptoms

Some cats may experience mild symptoms that improve within a few days, while others might have more severe symptoms that persist for weeks or longer. 

In cases of idiopathic vestibular disease, symptoms may resolve spontaneously within a week, with most cats making a full recovery.

Long-term Management

In cases where the cat experiences recurrent or chronic vestibular disease, long-term management strategies may be necessary. 

This might involve regular veterinary check-ups, ongoing medications, or lifestyle adjustments, and if your cat is a senior – complete nutrition, health, and hygiene care to ensure the cat’s safety and well-being. 

Is the vestibular disease in cats fatal?

Vestibular disease in cats is not usually fatal, but it can be concerning for both the cat and its owner. 

In many cases, the symptoms of vestibular disease may resolve on their own within a few days to a few weeks, however, if you notice symptoms of vestibular disease in your cat, it’s important to bring them to a veterinarian for a physical examination to determine the underlying cause and the best course of treatment.