Generally, your cat's quite the athlete. He leaps onto counters in a single bound, and sometimes he barrels through the house in a frantic flash. If that changes and Kitty appears off-balance, it's possible he's experiencing vestibular syndrome. That's especially likely if he lists to one side or falls over.
Kitty's vestibular system regulates his sense of balance by telling his head and neck just where they are in relation to the world around him. Your cat's balance problems might trace back to issues in his inner ear, including infections, if he has peripheral vestibular disease. Another type, central vestibular disease, results from a brain abnormality. Vestibular balance problems can also result from tumors, trauma, poisoning, an under-active thyroid gland or inflammation of the vestibular nerve. In older cats -- the most commonly affected -- the actual cause might never be determined.
The Vestibular System
Kitty's vestibular system consists of two distinct sections. Part of the vestibular apparatus sits next to cochlea in his inner ear. The other is located in his lower brain at the top of his spinal cord. This system contains canals full of fluid with "specialized nerve cells and receptors," according to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. The receptors respond to fluid movement changes in the canal, which occur when Kitty shifts his head. When working correctly, signals instantly go to his brain, letting it know his head position in relation to basic gravity. It tells the brain where and how the head is moving. In addition, if Kitty turns, his vestibular system sends a signal to his muscles on the side of his body that he's turning to; the signal tells his muscles to adjust so he won't fall over.
Besides suddenly falling down or leaning to one side, cats with vestibular syndrome might exhibit a head tilt. Kitty's eyes might also roll from side to side -- a pretty scary scene. Other symptoms include circling, stumbling, rolling about and general lack of coordination. Basically, Kitty looks like he's very drunk. If your cat experiences these symptoms, put him in a safe place where he can't inadvertently hurt himself, and take him to the vet as soon as possible. Strokes in felines mimic these symptoms, but if you're lucky it's his vestibular system that's out of whack.
Your vet must determine whether your cat's vestibular issue is central or peripheral. Along with a basic neurological exam, she'll conduct blood tests and examine Kitty's ears for any sign of infection that might affect his vestibular system. If his ears look normal, your vet may take X-rays or arrange for a magnetic resonance imaging scan of his head. She might also take a sample of the cat's spinal cord or brain fluid for testing.
Treatment depends on the underlying reason for the balance problem. If it's caused by an infection, the cat might receive antibiotics. If it's caused by a brain tumor, poisoning or head trauma, those issues must be addressed, as they are life-threatening. Sometimes no specific cause is found, and sometimes vestibular balance issues often resolve on their own. Your vet might prescribe motion sickness pills to help Kitty while he recovers.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.