Diagnosing Vestibular Syndrome in Cats

Vestibular syndrome is a disease of the inner ear that can adversely affect your cat’s sense of balance or equilibrium. It generally affects cats that are more than 12 years of age. Most cases of vestibular syndrome are idiopathic in nature which means that they’re associated with no known cause.

A pet with this syndrome will stagger about, fall and lose his balance. His head may tilt to one side and if the eyes are affected, they may roll from side to side or up and down. When your cat exhibits these symptoms, it can be a frightening experience for both you and your pet.

Vestibular Disease

The vestibular system is responsible for orienting your pet’s head and body correctly, with respect to the ground and gravity. It’s comprised of nerves that originate in the brain and end in the inner ear. Vestibular disease affects the brain’s ability to recognize any abnormality in the body’s position. Therefore, a cat with vestibular disease will lose his sense of balance, have a tendency to fall down, tilt his head to one side and lose the ability to walk in a straight line.

Types of Vestibular Disease

There are 2 types of vestibular disease that occur in cats. These include central and peripheral vestibular disease. Central vestibular disease occurs due to an abnormality in the cat’s brain and peripheral vestibular disease occurs due to an abnormality in the inner ear. Central vestibular disease generally has an underlying cause and improves when the underlying disorder is treated.

Symptoms of Vestibular Disease in Cats:

  • Falling
  • Lack of coordination
  • Tilting of head to one side
  • Circling
  • Rolling
  • Stumbling 
  • Eyes drifting from side to side or up and down

Diagnosis of Vestibular Disease in Cats

A complete physical exam and an evaluation of the pet’s medical history can help the vet diagnose vestibular disease. A complete examination of your pet’s inner ear is necessary along with a thorough neurologic examination. Blood tests help determine your pet’s general health. They also help to identify the underlying cause of the vestibular disease. A hemogram (complete blood test) and serum biochemistry tests to evaluate blood sugar and functions of the liver and kidney are recommended along with a urinalysis. Other diagnostic laboratory tests include a spinal tap, CT scan, MRI and X-rays of the skull.

If these tests are negative, central vestibular disease is ruled out. It’s essential to be able to identify whether your pet has central or peripheral vestibular disease. If the cat is suffering from central vestibular disease, the underlying cause will have to be treated first but if the pet is suffering from peripheral vestibular disease, only medications will be administered to provide relief.

Treatment for Cat Vestibular Syndrome

Generally, vestibular disease heals on its own and requires little or no treatment. Motion sickness medication such as diphenhydramine, meclizine or antivert can improve your pet’s sense of balance and can help to alleviate symptoms such as nausea. If the condition is idiopathic, it will take longer to heal and might improve over a couple of weeks with little or no medication.

If your pet displays symptoms of vestibular syndrome, it’s essential to keep him calm and prevent him from hurting himself. It’s best to have him treated by a vet at the earliest. Prescribed medications should also be administered appropriately to ensure recovery.