What to Know About Vestibular Disease in Cats

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on February 18, 2024
4 min read

Vestibular disease — also known as geriatric vestibular disease or vestibular syndrome (cats) — can appear suddenly in your cat. One moment, your cat may be completely normal, and the next, they are struggling to stand and balance on their four limbs. It’s one of the most common causes of a sudden loss of balance in cats. 

The condition is caused by a problem with your cat’s vestibular system. This system has two large centers in your cat’s body — one at the base of their brain and one in their inner ear. This system’s main function is to keep your cat balanced while they move around.  

It’s made up of an arrangement of nerves and fluid-filled canals that track where your cat’s head is in relation to gravity. It can tell whether or not your cat’s head is moving and, if it is, in which direction. 

This information from the inner ear is transmitted to the brain. The brain then sends signals to change the rest of your cat’s body — including their muscles and eyes — in response to these head movements. 

Vestibular disease can disrupt either the inner ear or brain parts of this system, causing your cat to lose their balance. It can happen to both male and female cats of any age but is seen more often in older felines.   

There can be many different causes for vestibular disease in cats, but the most common kind is idiopathic — meaning that there isn’t any detectable cause. 

Other causes are problems in your cat that affect the vestibular system in some way. These include: 

  • Bacterial infections of the inner ear
  • Inflammatory diseases in the inner ear
  • A bad reaction to a drug — some antibiotics can cause this condition
  • Growths — including cysts, polyps, and tumors — in either the inner ear or the brain
  • Head trauma
  • Parasites
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Birth defects

The symptoms of vestibular disease can set in very suddenly in your cat and might look very distressing to owners, but the condition by itself isn’t a cause for alarm. 

In one way or another, the symptoms are all due to your cat’s disrupted balance and may include:

  • Difficulty standing up
  • Circling to one side when trying to walk
  • Falling over after taking just a few steps
  • Rapid and spastic-seeming eye movements in many directions called nystagmus  
  • Head constantly tilted to one side — no matter what position they are in
  • Nausea and vomiting — because the brain center is near the one for nausea 
  • Facial drooping — because the inner ear center is near a control for facial muscles

If your cat’s vestibular disease is idiopathic then the symptoms should begin to clear up on their own. The first 24 to 48 hours after the symptoms begin are typically the worst. Most symptoms will improve after three to five days. But it’ll take longer — possibly over three weeks — for your cat to make a full recovery. 

Even though your cat’s symptoms are likely to clear up on their own, it’s still important to bring your cat to the vet as soon as you notice these balance issues. This is because the cause could be something much more serious than vestibular disease. You need a diagnosis from your vet (based on medical history and an examination of the patient) to be sure that your cat will be okay.  

There’s a chance — in severe cases — that your cat’s head will remain at a permanent tilt. This won’t disrupt any of your cat’s normal activities.    

In order to determine whether or not your cat has vestibular disease, your veterinarian will need to physically examine your cat. They’ll look inside of your cat's ears for signs of infection, inflammation, or tumors. They will also perform a neurological exam to decide if the part of the vestibular system that is in the brain is the main cause.

In some cases, advanced imaging techniques will help with the diagnosis. This could include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a computed tomography (CT) scan.

The treatment for vestibular disease in cats depends on the cause. If something like an infection or tumor is causing the problem then this underlying condition needs to be treated. When the cause is dealt with, your cat will go back to normal. These treatments will be specific to your cat and their condition — but could include anything from antibiotics to surgery. 

In cases where your cat’s symptoms will clear up on their own, the best treatment is to keep your cat safe and comfortable until their balance is back to normal. In order to do this, you can try: 

  • Remaining calm — pets can be sensitive to their owner’s emotions 
  • Finding or creating a safe and secure area for your cat to rest
  • Using thick, rolled blankets to help support your cat while they sleep or sit
  • Keeping food, water, and litter near them and on the floor for easy access
  • Helping your cat reposition so they don’t lay in the same spot and get sores

Sometimes your vet may prescribe anti-nausea medication if your cat is having trouble eating.

You may be tempted to carry your cat around while they recover, but you shouldn’t do this too much. Your cat will need to walk to re-train their system and re-establish their balance. 

Currently, there isn’t a medically proven home remedy for vestibular disease in cats. It’s important for you to consult your veterinarian before trying any alternative treatments on your animal.