Cat resting on a rug.

Vestibular Disease in Cats

The vestibular system is a specialized portion of the nervous system found within the inner ear, brain, and spinal cord. Its duty is to maintain a state of equilibrium and balance. By communicating with the nerves supplying the eyes, limbs, and trunk, the body is able to coordinate the position and activity of these regions with movements of the head.

Peripheral vestibular dysfunction (PVD) is a disease that affects the nerves of the vestibular apparatus in the ears. PVD is characterized by a sudden onset of incoordination and loss of balance, which is often accompanied by a head tilt, involuntary twitching of the eyeballs, and in many cases, vomiting.

The causes of this disorder can include trauma to the ears, skull infections, and tumors involving the middle or inner ear. Diagnosis of PVD is achieved using clinical signs and various laboratory tests to rule out other potential causes of the symptoms. Radiographs of the skull may be helpful in the detection of any masses or infections that may involve the inner portions of the ears.

Treatment, of course, depends on the underlying cause and usually includes high doses of corticosteroid medications designed to reduce inflammation involving the vestibular apparatus.

Vestibular ataxia syndrome is seen in kittens born of queens stricken with feline parvovirus during pregnancy. Owners often are alerted to a problem when these kittens seem to have trouble in attempting to walk. The condition will not improve as these kittens mature, nor will it usually worsen.

Congenital vestibular syndrome is seen in Siamese and Burmese cats, with signs appearing anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks of age. Many of the Siamese cats affected are deaf as well. The prognosis for Siamese cats with congenital vestibular syndrome is good, with clinical signs usually abating by the time the cat is 6 months of age.

In Burmese cats, however, the prognosis is not as good, and the poor quality of life for most of these individuals will usually warrant euthanasia.