Vestibular Problems

image of cat balancing on a fence.

In order to understand how vestibular problems exist, one must first look at the vestibular system, which consists of the parts of the inner ear (vestibular apparatus) and brain (medulla) that help regulate balance and eye movements.

The vestibular apparatus involves a number of fluid-filled chambers, all of which contain nerve cells and receptors. These receptors are linked to the nerves that run to the medulla and also react to the modifications in movement of the fluid in the chambers. As the fluid moves—particularly when an animal or human’s head alters position—corresponding signals are instantly forwarded to the brain and these signals disclose the location of the head in relation to gravity.

Thus, the vestibular apparatus communicates to the animal whether its head is stationary or in motion. If the head is in motion, it tells the animal which way it is shifting. The muscles also assist with balance, as they adjust to accommodate the head and body transitions, so the animal does not tip over.

If the vestibular system is damaged or somehow harmed—whether it is due to aging, injury or disease—vestibular syndrome can result.

How Does Vestibular Syndrome Affect Cats?

A cat that has vestibular syndrome may be its agile self one moment but then unexpectedly have difficulty standing. Once standing, it may appear to struggle with keeping its balance and, after a few steps are taken, may stagger to one side and tip over. Additionally, its head may oddly lean to one side and its eyes may shoot back and forth uncontrollably.

Symptoms of Vestibular Syndrome

Vestibular syndrome comes with a variety of symptoms, and cats may present with more or one of the following:

  • Vision impairment
  • Changes in hearing
  • Imbalance
  • Spatial disorientation
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Motion sickness
  • Sensitivity to temperature or pressure changes

These symptoms are fleeting, meaning they come on abruptly and steadily improve over the course of several days. Full recovery can be achieved within two to three weeks.

Treating Vestibular Syndrome

Vestibular syndrome is often temporary and poses no threat to your cat. However, there are cases where there is an underlying disease, such as a tumor, bacterial infection, inflammatory condition, cancer, polyps or cysts, that is causing the disorder. In these instances, your feline veterinarian will need to perform tests—including a neurologic exam and otoscopic exam that involves examining the ears for infection, tumors or inflammation—and collect blood and urine samples in order to determine the exact cause and craft an appropriate treatment plan. Contact us today if you think your cat might be suffering vestibular syndrome.

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