Vestibular Disease in Cats

You are with your generally healthy and agile cat one day, and you suddenly notice it having trouble standing on four legs and maintaining its balance.

The cat eventually stands but has a funny look as it does. Its vision may seem fine but, its eyes dart back and forth with its head tilting to one side.

After taking a few steps, its body circles to one side and falls. You may be witnessing what is known as a vestibular disease in cats. 

Vestibular disease, Feline Idiopathic Vestibular Disease or Feline Vestibular Syndrome, is a condition that affects cats regardless of their age.

It is a disease that affects its vestibular system – a complex system of nerves and other components that controls its sense of balance and the movement of its eyes and head.

This system is present even in humans and is located in the inner ear. It is responsible for maintaining our balance, sense of orientation, and direction.

When the vestibular system is impaired, balance and coordination are severely affected, which in turn affects our equilibrium. 

Some cases of this condition in cats are typically harmless and occur only for a short time. However, symptoms of the disease may be due to a more severe condition and require immediate attention from your vet doctor. 

The two main types of vestibular disease in cats are:

  • Central Vestibular Disease occurs when an infection or tumor in the brain adversely affects the cat’s vestibular apparatus.
  • Peripheral Vestibular Disease occurs when the nerves of the brain or ear are affected.

Vestibular disease occurs in cats of all ages and breeds. However, it has been shown that some breeds such as the Burmese and Siamese suffer from a congenital form of the condition. 


There is no known cause of the illness in many cases. Some cases may be due to infections of the middle and inner-ear. Tumors have been associated with the disease in older cats, but that is less common.

Exposures to certain drugs or toxins may cause symptoms that mimic the condition. But the majority of vestibular disease cases are often diagnosed as idiopathic, which means the exact cause is unknown. 

Signs and Symptoms

The symptoms of vestibular disease in cats include:  

  • Head tilt
  • Disorientation 
  • Rapid and repetitive movement of the eyes (Nystagmus)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Circling to one side 
  • Falling 

Some cat owners may assume their pet is experiencing a stroke due to the way it circles and falls over. Luckily, strokes are rarely seen in cats compared to humans. 

If the cat is having a stroke, it would most likely be as a result of chronic kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, or a heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Although these illnesses can be observed in older cats, a cat experiencing a stroke is still considered a rare occurrence.


There is no specific test for diagnosing vestibular disease. Diagnosis is typically made based on clinical symptoms, physical examination, and medical history.

Tests such as X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), spinal fluid analysis, blood and urine tests, the examination of discharge or fluids found in the ear canal are performed to rule out more serious cases. 


There is no exact treatment of vestibular disease in cats. Treatment is mainly to manage symptoms of the condition.

The vet doctor may prescribe drugs to prevent nausea and vomiting. In cases where the cat’s balance is severely affected, they may require some changes in their living condition. 

Preventing access to high surfaces and bringing their food and water bowls to them until they gain their sense of equilibrium may be needed. 

Cats suffering from the condition usually recover within a few weeks. There may be some lingering effects of the condition, such as an unsteady gait, depending on the duration and the severity of the illness. However, they are recovered for the most part. 

Antibiotics and/or antifungals may be administered orally or into the cat’s ear canals if the vestibular disease is caused by an infection of the middle or inner ear.


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