Learning to Recognize Feline Vestibular Syndrome.

Your cat, normally healthy and agile, suddenly appears to have difficulty maintaining her balance while standing up on all fours. She ultimately manages to set herself upright, but, there's something wrong about her appearance. Her vision appears to be normal, but her head is weirdly tilted to one side and her eyes are darting wildly back and forth. She takes a few steps, then abruptly loses her balance and tips over.

Most Cases of Vestibular Syndrome Are Temporary.

You may find your cat loses her balance if she has vestibular disease*

In this instance, the cat may be experiencing a temporary issue with its vestibular system, the complicated array of nerves and other sensory components governing a cat's sense of balance as well as its ability to coordinate both eye and head movement. Though usually a temporary and ultimately harmless situation, this may be indicative of vestibular disease and, if it recurs, should be given veterinary attention immediately.


The vestibular system involves critical components located in two related locations: First, the cat's inner ear, adjoining the cochlea, is home to the vestibular apparatus and second, the medulla, located in the juncture between the lower area of the brain and the top of the spinal cord. A highway of fluid filled canals, containing specialized nerve receptors and cells make up the vestibular apparatus.


The changes in the movement of fluids found in these canals dictates responses experienced in the nerve receptors. As the animal's head changes position, the fluid shifts, sending corresponding impulses directly to the animal's brain. This allows the cat to sense the position of its head relative to gravity, as well as whether the cat's head is moving or motionless. Your cat's sense of balance is typically maintained by the system's continual compensation for changing positions. Should the animal turn, the muscles are automatically sent signals indicating the need for tiny position adjustments. This helps prevent your cat from tipping over.


Common Symptoms of Vestibular Disease.

Among the most common clinical indications of vestibular disease are falling to one side, circling, an unusually pronounced tilting of the head and something known as "nystagmus," or the involuntary, rapid oscillating movement of the cat's eyes. If a tumor or inflammatory disease of the middle or inner ear is present, facial drooping may also occur. Interestingly enough, the nerves located in the cat's face are closely associated with the cat's middle ear.


Vestibular disease is often precipitated by events including: adverse reactions to certain drugs, most noticeably certain antibiotics, viral or bacterial infection, inflammatory disease and/or a variety of growths such as cancer, tumors, cysts and polyps. In the large majority of cases, vestibular malfunctions cause may not be identifiable.


Both male and female cats of any breed or age may be affected by this disorder. While many of the symptoms are similar to those associated with other nervous conditions in the body, they are quite often short lived, appearing briefly and then improving gradually over a few day's time. The majority of cats tend to fully recover within a few weeks. While the condition is not all that common, most veterinarians do see it amongst their patients, from time to time.


Diagnosing Vestibular Disease.

Diagnosing vestibular disease requires a comprehensive physical exam, a thorough medical history and an otoscopic exam exploring the cat's ears for tumors, inflammation and signs of infection along with a neurological exam. In certain circumstances, X-rays, MRI's or CT's may be necessary to scan for problems located deeply within the cat's skull or ears.

Treating vestibular disorder is highly dependent on the initial cause. Should the condition be secondary to toxicity, infection or tumor, the primary cause must be treated. In the case of non-identifiable or, "idiopathic" causes, there may be no specific treatment available. Throughout the condition's duration, cats should be kept safe in a confined area where they cannot injure themselves. If the cat cannot drink or eat, supportive care may be required to keep the cat properly hydrated and fed. If the cat starts vomiting, anti-nausea medicine may be called for. In the great majority of idiopathic incidences of vestibular malfunction, the symptoms will eventually vanish and the cat will not experience another episode during its lifetime.

*Image courtesy of Free Digital Images