Cat vestibular disease goes by other names, including feline vestibular disease and idiopathic vestibular disease (IVD). Vestibular issues in cats are unfortunately common, leaving many cat owners looking for answers about this strange condition and how they can care for a cat who is experiencing it.
What Is Cat Vestibular Disease?
Cat vestibular disease impacts your cat’s vestibular system. Located in the middle and inner ear, the vestibular system is part of the nervous system and is responsible for controlling your cat’s balance and sense of direction.
What Causes This Disease?
The causes of cat vestibular disease are not entirely understood – this is why it’s often called idiopathic vestibular disease (adding the word idiopathic to the diagnosis means that a true cause isn’t clear). Damage or disease in the vestibular system – such as ear infections, tumors, or head trauma – can sometimes cause the disease. Sometimes, a cat's reaction to a toxin might emulate the symptoms of vestibular disease.
Siamese and Burmese cat breeds can also inherit the disease, but all cat breeds, genders, and ages can be impacted by IVD.
Symptoms of Cat Vestibular Disease
The symptoms of this disease will almost always manifest suddenly and worsen quickly. A cat with vestibular disease will struggle to balance, falling and not demonstrating their usual agility and grace. They also often display a prominent head tilt to one side or might be seen shaking their head from side to side. Another symptom is called nystagmus, which means your cat’s eyes are darting back and forth quickly.
The symptoms are primarily movement-oriented: your cat may walk in circles or struggle to walk at all and just remain lying down while vocalizing excessively. A particularly disoriented cat might throw up from dizziness. Symptoms are usually most severe in the first day or two and then they lessen.
Diagnosis Is Not Always Straightforward
Unfortunately, diagnosing cat vestibular disease is a game of elimination. There is no blood test or distinctive strategy for diagnosing this condition. Your veterinarian will take an approach of eliminating other possibilities for your cat’s symptoms, such as an ear infection or cancer. Tests might include x-rays, an MRI and/or CT scan, and a spinal tap in addition to a standard physical and ear exam. Even if you are feeling confident that your cat has IVD, it’s important to undergo the additional testing in case your veterinarian can identify a cause for the disease that might impact other parts of your cat’s health (such as a tumor or infection).
Is There Safe Treatment for IVD?
The sudden onset of cat vestibular disease symptoms such as poor balance and uncontrollable eye movement can be very scary for a cat owner to witness. Luckily, these symptoms often only last 24 to 48 hours and then begin to become less severe. This condition has a very good prognosis, in that most cats go back to normal within a couple of days or weeks and don’t experience any more issues after their recovery.
There is no treatment in the sense of a medication or surgery that will immediately relieve your cat’s IVD symptoms. Instead, treatment is more about how you care for your cat while they experience the symptoms.
Caring for a Cat with Feline Vestibular Disease
There are several steps pet owners can take to keep their cat safe and comfortable during the onset and progress of cat vestibular disease symptoms. These include:
- The use of medication to treat dizziness or nausea
- Helping your cat stay hydrated and nourished
- Securing your cat’s environment for safety
- Readjusting your cat regularly if they are bed-bound
Your Veterinarian May Provide Medication for Nausea and Dizziness
If your cat is vomiting or seems to feel especially dizzy and nauseous from the disorientation resulting from IVD, your veterinarian might prescribe some medications that will help soothe those symptoms. Reducing the motion sickness or vomiting that results from cat vestibular disease can help your cat be more comfortable as they ride out these issues. Never use human motion sickness medication on cats – it’s very important that you get a cat-specific medication from your pet’s doctor. Even if you have a feline medication on hand from a previous illness, consult your veterinarian before giving it to your cat.
Some Cats with IVD Will Need Help Eating and Drinking
When you’re extremely dizzy and uncoordinated, eating and drinking can be especially difficult. But it’s still crucial that your cat gets their necessary daily nutrition and stays well hydrated. You may need to help your cat eat and drink while they are feeling the effects of IVD. This might mean hand- or spoon-feeding your cat while they are lying down if their symptoms are very severe. If you are struggling to get your cat to eat or drink at all for more than a day, call your veterinarian. It’s possible your cat will need a feeding tube or IV hydration while they recover from cat vestibular disease.
Cats with Balance Issues Need to Stay on Ground Level and Secure
If your cat is mobile but uncoordinated, it’s important to keep them at a single level to reduce the risk of injury from a fall. Put the cat tower in a closet for a while and set up a baby gate around any stairs. Try to place your cat in a safe, closed-off area that doesn’t include any surfaces they could reach with a jump (such as bookshelves or counters). Keep everything your cat needs – bed, toys, litter box, food, and water bowls – in this area so they are fully equipped during their recovery period.
Avoid Bedsores for Cats Who Are Temporarily Immobilized
In the same way some cats will need help eating and drinking while experiencing the symptoms of cat vestibular disease, some cats will need help with all movement if they are completely immobilized. An extremely dizzy and disoriented cat will not even want to stand up to use the bathroom or readjust their body. This means you will have to help them use the litter box and also move them around occasionally to keep them from getting bedsores. A cat shouldn’t stay in the exact same position for more than a few hours.
Cat Vestibular Disease Requires an Immediate Veterinary Visit
If your cat starts to display symptoms of vestibular disease, you will need to take them to a veterinary clinic immediately. While the symptoms tend to be quite specific, your veterinarian will need to rule out the possibility of other issues. If a tumor is causing your cat’s vestibular disease symptoms, it’s very important that the tumor is identified and assessed for additional risk factors. Likewise, it’s possible your cat might need medication – such as an ear infection treatment – to eliminate the cause of their vestibular disease.
Don’t hesitate to take your cat to the nearest open veterinary clinic when they start showing the coordination and balance issues that indicate vestibular disease.