Vestibular Disease In Cats - Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

By Carolina Costa. January 31, 2019
Vestibular Disease In Cats - Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

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Vestibular syndrome is one of the most common cat diseases and presents very characteristic and easily recognizable symptoms. These symptoms include head drooping, staggering gait and lack of motor coordination. Although the symptoms are easy to recognize, vestibular syndrome causes can be very difficult to diagnose, sometimes defined as feline idiopathic vestibular syndrome.

‘‘Is vestibular disease in cats fatal?’’ This is just one of the many questions asked in reference to this syndrome. For more about feline vestibular syndrome: causes, symptoms and treatment, keep reading here at AnimalWised.

Vestibular syndrome in cats

To understand fully what feline vestibular syndrome is, it is necessary to know a little about the vestibular system.

The vestibular system refers to the set of organs within the ear, responsible for ensuring correct posture and maintaining balance in the body. This is in addition to regulating eye, tail and limb positioning and maintaining a sense of orientation and balance.

The vestibular system can be divided into two parts:

  • Peripheral: which is located in the inner ear.
  • Central: which is located in the brain and cerebellum.

Although there are few differences between the clinical symptoms of peripheral vestibular syndrome in cats and central vestibular syndrome, it is important to locate the lesion. Is the lesion at the central and/or peripheral level? The severity of the syndrome will depend on this answer.

Vestibular syndrome in cats is a set of clinical symptoms that can arise suddenly, caused by alterations to the vestibular system. This can result in, among other things, imbalance and loss of motor skills.

Feline vestibular syndrome itself is not fatal, however the adjacent cause may be. This is why it is very important that you consult your veterinarian if you notice any of the symptoms which we will be mentioning below.

Have you noticed that your cat suddenly can’t walk? For more, we recommend taking a look at our article ‘My cat can’t walk- causes and solutions.’

Vestibular disease in cats: symptoms

The different clinical vestibular syndrome in cats symptoms include[1]:

Head inclination

This degree of head inclination can vary from a small incline to pronounced slopes of the head and difficulty in standing upright.

Ataxia (lack of motor coordination)

Ataxia in cats causes a cat to exhibit uncoordinated and staggering gaits and walking in circles (circling) usually to the affected side. A cat showing signs of ataxia will also tend to fall to the side of the lesion (in rare cases to the unaffected side).


Nistagmus in cats results in a continuous, rhythmic and involuntary eye movement. These movements can be directed horizontally, vertically and/or in rotation. This symptom is very easy to identify just by looking at your cat’s eyes, look for shaking eye motions.


Strabismus in cats may be positional or spontaneous (when raising the animal's head), the eyes are not centralized as normal, with one or both eyes misaligned.

Otitis externa (medium or internal)

Otitis in cats is often a symptoms of feline vestibular syndrome. For more, we recommend taking a look a t our article where we discuss everything you need to know about otitis in cats.


Although rare when it comes to vestibular disease in cats, it can occur.

Absence of facial sensitivity and atrophy of facial muscles

Loss of facial sensitivity is a common symptom of vestibular syndrome in cats. Usually a cat won’t feel pain. You may also notice an atrophy of your cat’s jaw and chewing muscles. One side will appear more developed than another.

Horner's Syndrome

Horner's syndrome results from the loss of eye enervation from facial and ocular nerves. Honer’s syndrome in cats is is characterized by:

  • Miosis.
  • Anisocoria (different sized pupils )
  • Eyelid ptosis (upper eyelid drooping)
  • Enophthalmia (eyeball within the orbit)
  • Protrusion of the third eyelid (visible third eyelid) on the side of the vestibular lesion.

For more, we recommend taking a look at our article where we discuss everything you need to know about Horner’s syndrome in cats.

An important note: Bilateral vestibular lesions are rare. When this injury occurs, it is referred to as peripheral vestibular syndrome in cats. In this case, your cat will be reluctant to walk, appear unbalanced on both sides, walk with limbs apart in order to maintain balance and move with exaggeration. Your cat may also show signs of head tilting or nystagmus.

Although this article is intended for cats, it is important to note that these symptoms described above also apply to canine vestibular syndrome.

Vestibular Disease In Cats - Symptoms, Causes and Treatment - Vestibular disease in cats: symptoms

Vestibular syndrome in cats: causes

In most cases, finding the root cause of vestibular syndrome in cats can prove to be quite difficult. In this case we refer to idiopathic vestibular syndrome in cats.

Infections such as otitis media or internal otitis are common causes of vestibular syndrome. Although tumors are not very common, they should always be considered, especially in older cats.

For more, read about the most common diseases in cats.

Feline vestibular syndrome causes: congenital anomalies

Certain cat breeds such as the Siamese cat, Persian cat and Burmese cats are more prone to developing this congenital disease. These symptoms usually manifest from birth to a few weeks of age. These diagnosed kittens may suffer from associated deafness, in addition to clinical vestibular symptoms. Because these changes are suspected to be inherited, affected animals should not reproduce.

Read here for more about common diseases of Siamese cats.

Vestibular syndrome in cats: infectious causes (bacteria, fungi, ectoparasites) or inflammatory causes

Middle and/or internal otitis are infections of the middle and/or inner ear that originate in the external auditory canal and progress from the middle ear to the inner ear.

Most Otitis in cats is caused by bacteria, certain fungi and ectoparasites such as Otodectes cynotis mites. These cause itching, ear reddening, wounds, earwax excess and discomfort. This discomfort can result in a cat scratching its ears excessively and head tilting.

A cat suffering from otitis media may not express symptoms of otitis externa. This is because the external auditory canal may not be affected.

Diseases such as feline infectious peritonitis (PIF), toxoplasmosis, cryptococcosis and parasitic encephalomyelitis are other examples of diseases that can cause vestibular syndrome in cats.

Feline vestibular syndrome causes: nasopharyngeal polyps

Vestibular syndroms in cats can also be caused by small masses composed of vascularized fibrous tissue that grow progressively. Thereby occupying the nasopharynx and reaching the middle ear. This type of polyp in cats is common in cats between 1 and 5 years old and may be associated with sneezing, breathing sounds and dysphagia (difficulty swallowing).

For more read about cat sinus infection home remedies.

Feline vestibular disease causes: trauma

Traumatic lesions in the inner or middle ear can easily affect a cat’s peripheral vestibular system negatively. In these cases, the animals may also present symptoms of Horner's syndrome. If you suspect that your cat has suffered some kind of trauma, especially to the head, check to see for any evident face swelling, open wounds or bleeding in the ear canal.

Vestibular disease in cats causes: ototoxicity and allergic reaction

Symptoms of ototoxicity in cats may be unilateral or bilateral, depending on the route of administration and the toxicity level of the drug.

Medications like certain antibiotics (aminoglycosides) administered either systemically or topically (directly into /on the ear) can cause the appearance of ear lesions in cats.

Chemotherapy drugs or diuretics such as furosemide can also prove to be ototoxic.

For more about antibiotics for cats, take a look at our article, can I give my cat antibiotics?

Feline vestibular syndrome: metabolic and nutritional causes

Taurine deficiency and hypothyroidism are two common causes of vestibular disease in cats.

Hypothyroidism causes a state of lethargy, generalized weakness, weight loss, poor hair condition and possible vestibular symptoms in cats. It can lead to peripheral or central, acute or chronic vestibular syndrome. In most cases, vestibular symptoms disappear within 2 to 4 weeks after initiation of thyroxine administration.

For more, take a look at our article about obesity in cats.

Vestibular disease in cats causes: neoplasias

Tumors in cats can grow and occupy ear space, compressing the surrounding structures. If these tumors compress on one or more components of the vestibular system they may also result in vestibular syndrome in cats. When it comes to vestibular disease in older cats, tumors are often the primary cause. For more, read up about cancer in cats.

Idiopathic vestibular disease in cats

After eliminating all other possible causes, vestibular syndrome is determined as idiopathic (no known cause). Although it may seem strange, this situation is quite common. Acute clinical symptoms of vestibular disease usually appear in cats older than 5 years.

Vestibular syndrome in cats: treatment

There is no specific test that can help diagnose vestibular syndrome in cats. Most veterinarians rely on clinical symptoms presented by the animal, as well as a physical examination performed during the visit. From these simple but essential steps, it is possible to form a provisional diagnosis.

During the physical examination, a veterinarian will likely perform auditory and neurological tests that allow the extent and location of the lesion to be analyzed. Depending on this found information, your veterinarian will determine what additional tests are needed to find out the root cause of this problem: ear cytology and cultures, blood or urine tests, CT scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Vestibular syndrome in cats treatment and prognosis will depend on the underlying cause, symptoms and severity of the condition. It is important to know that, even after treatment, some cats may still present slight head tilting.

Because idiopathic vestoibular syndrome in cats is so common, there is no specific treatment or surgery. However, animals usually recover quickly as feline idiopathic vestibular syndrome is a self-resolving condition and symptoms eventually disappear.

Don’t forget to keep your cat’s ears free of obstruction and maintain hygiene with regular cleaning.

For more, take a look at: Mites on Cats - Symptoms, Treatment and Contagion

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to Vestibular Disease In Cats - Symptoms, Causes and Treatment, we recommend you visit our Neurological diseases category.

  • LeCouteur, R. A. (2003) Feline vestibular diseases – new developments. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. Elsevier Science Ltd, 5, 101-108
  • Lowrie, M. (2012) Vestibular Disease: Diseases Causing Vestibular Signs. Neurology, Compendium, 34 (7), disponível em:
  • Rossmeisl Jr, J. H. (2010) Vestibular Disease on Dogs and Cats. Vet Clin Smal Animal. Elsevier Inc, 40 , 81-100.

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What did you think of this article?
Can vaccines cause vestibular disease in cats? Had cat vaccinated on a Monday and symptoms started on Wednesday.
Administrador AnimalWised
We cannot find a link between vaccines and vestibular disease. We did find a journal article which noted an unusual case of a cat which developed vestibular disease after a vaccination checkup, but this was not determined as the cause. The cat recovered well within 10 days.
Dustywind AnimalWise
This is by far the best most informative clearest article I have found about the stimulator syndrome!! I am so happy to find this! I will visit your site again
Administrador AnimalWised
Glad we could help!
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