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Does your cat look like they have been down the pub and had one too many? Seeing your cat suddenly walk like a drunk can be a terrifying sight. One second, they are their usual agile self. The next, you see your cat walking weird with its back legs and having issues with its balance.
Many cat owners assume that these symptoms are the sign that their furry friend has had a stroke, a fate no owner wants for their feline. Thankfully, this sudden dizziness is not a reason to panic. Although these behaviors should be taken seriously, it is unlikely they warrant emergency status.
Or at least not straight away. Suppose your feline’s condition quickly deteriorates, and you notice your cat breathing heavily while resting or your cat’s eyes always dilated. In that case, you must take them to the vet so they can be checked out by a professional.
In this article, I will examine what is behind your cat’s sudden lack of coordination and what other symptoms to look out for. I’ll also explain why your furry friend may feel this way and what steps you should take to ensure they get the help they need.
Why is My Cat Suddenly Walking Like It’s Drunk?
When a cat is suddenly wobbly and uncoordinated, there is typically one primary cause: vestibular disease. This is a type of ataxia that affects the vestibular apparatus found in the inner ear.
The vestibular apparatus sends information to the balance center in the brain, informing your kitty of when its head is moving and in which direction the movement is happening. Unfortunately, this process won’t work correctly if your feline friend suffers from vestibular disease. This leaves your cat feeling off-balance and causes the “drunken” walking that they are so suddenly displaying.
Several health conditions can be behind the onset of vestibular disease, but most often, the cause isn’t found without thorough testing. Unfortunately, this can take a long time and cost a lot of money, so many cases are considered idiopathic (having no known trigger).
Although this sounds scary, once diagnosed, the disease is usually treatable whether the underlying cause is found or not. It’s also worth noting that idiopathic vestibular syndrome can’t be passed onto any other pets you may own. As long as you keep an eye on symptoms and follow your vet’s advice, your kitty should return to its usual energetic self within a few weeks.
What is Vestibular Syndrome?
Vestibular syndrome is a condition that will cause your kitty to become disoriented and dizzy, therefore making them appear as if they are drunk.
The disease affects felines of all ages and has a rapid onset, with symptoms usually developing in less than an hour. This being said, it’s usually not too much of a cause for concern as plenty of treatment options are available, and the disease tends to be short-lived.
Read on for an in-depth look at vestibular syndrome that will prepare you for what to look out for and how you can help your kitty should they start displaying symptoms.
Vestibular Disease Symptoms in Cats
If you notice a sudden loss of balance in your cat, you must watch for other symptoms that could point toward vestibular disease. The more information you can collect about your furry friend’s condition, the better your vet will be able to understand and treat the cause of the disease.
Try to keep an eye out for the following signs.
- Trouble standing upright
- Stumbling or falling over while walking
- Head noticeably tilted to one side
- Hearing problems
- Vomiting and/or a reduced appetite
- Rolling on the floor
- Moving around in circles
- Repetitive eye movements
The nature of this disease also means there is a high chance of your kitty injuring themselves. A cat suddenly limping on its back leg is not normal and suggests that it may have hurt itself by falling onto a hard surface. Even if your cat doesn’t verbalize any pain, it is essential to get these injuries checked out: cats have learned to hide their pain as it shows predators they are vulnerable.
Causes of Vestibular Disease in Cats
Unfortunately, in most cases, it is not possible to determine the cause of vestibular disease. However, several other medical conditions have been known to impact the onset of the syndrome in the past, so your kitty may have a higher chance of having vestibular disease if they have already been diagnosed with a different condition. I look at a few of these predisposing conditions below:
- Ear Infections: Some of the most common causes of vestibular syndrome in cats are middle and inner ear infections. This is because the infection is so close to the vestibular apparatus and therefore messes with its ability to send the correct messages to your kitty’s brain.
- Ear Canal Tumors: A less common trigger of the disease is a tumor. For example, a tumor in your cat’s ear canal can negatively affect the workings of the apparatus.
- Brain Cancer: It is possible brain cancer could also be the culprit if it goes on to affect your feline’s central nervous system or spinal cord. If you have a disoriented cat with dilated pupils, this is most likely the source of their symptoms. Keep in mind that tumors are also more likely to form the older your cat gets.
- Neurological Disorder or Toxin Exposure: Although very unlikely, an underlying neurological disorder or past exposure to a harmful drug or toxin (e.g., an ototoxic medication such as metronidazole) could also be why your cat seems disoriented all the time. Both of these can cause very similar symptoms to vestibular syndrome.
In some cases, it may also be that your kitty inherited the disease from one of their parents and has been affected since birth. This is most common in Siamese and Burmese cats but don’t worry; the symptoms should be able to be treated, nevertheless.
Diagnosing Vestibular Syndrome in Cats
Diagnosing vestibular syndrome in cats can be a long process, as your vet will want to rule out any other conditions that could be causing your cat to be dizzy and fall over.
To begin with, your vet will check your kitty’s overall health by looking in their ears using an otoscope and performing a neurologic exam. Ear cultures, blood tests, and urine tests may also be ordered, as well as several scans (e.g., an MRI or x-ray).
Make sure you enter your appointment prepared for questions about your furry friend’s medical history and any other symptoms they’ve recently been displaying. This can go a long way in helping your vet find the underlying cause of your feline’s drunken walking. If your vet suspects vestibular disease, your cat will be diagnosed with one of the following types of the condition:
- Central Vestibular Disease: If your cat’s symptoms are due to an issue in the brain, such as a lesion or tumor, they will be diagnosed with central vestibular disease. Unfortunately, this is the most severe form of the disease and is the hardest to treat.
- Peripheral Vestibular Disease: In comparison, peripheral vestibular disease is caused by infections, drug reactions, or tumors in the ear that affect the nerves and brain. Treatment for these underlying conditions tends to be much easier.
In many cases, the underlying cause of the disease goes undiagnosed, which is called idiopathic vestibular disease. This is usually because more thorough testing would be required, which is a lengthy and costly process. If this is the case for your kitty, don’t worry, there are still treatment options available that are highly effective in relieving symptoms, as you will find out below.
Treatment for Vestibular Syndrome
There are two ways of treating vestibular syndrome, targeting either the symptoms or the cause. The route your vet takes will depend on whether the underlying cause of your kitty’s condition is known.
When vestibular disease is classed as idiopathic, your vet’s primary focus will be on relieving your cat’s symptoms and making them feel more comfortable day-to-day. This can include prescriptions for things such as motion sickness, nausea, and vomiting, or it could be more assistance based, for example, helping your feline to eat and drink.
The good news is idiopathic vestibular syndrome tends to be short-lived and will improve on its own over time. Symptoms of the disease are usually worst over the first day or two, and then you should notice a steady improvement. It may be worth confining your cat to a well-padded area that doesn’t have access to high places during this time to reduce the chances of further injury due to falling over.
However, suppose your cat’s loss of balance is found to be caused by an underlying condition such as those mentioned above. In that case, your vet will focus treatment on eliminating that underlying cause. For example, antibiotics may be prescribed to improve an ear infection. This should, in turn, stop the symptoms caused by vestibular syndrome.
However, the exact form of treatment depends on the source of the disease. Other options include surgery to remove tumors or cancers, for instance. Taking care to protect your feline from ear infections or other conditions linked with vestibular syndrome also helps improve recovery and prevent the disease from recurring.
In most cases, your furry friend will fully recover from vestibular disease once the underlying health condition has been treated. Unfortunately, in cases such as brain injuries where the situation can’t be improved, the symptoms can only be reduced, never fully resolved.
What Should I Do if My Cat is Suddenly Wobbly?
It can be extremely worrying when you notice any difference in your cat’s mobility or behavior. I’ll be the first to say that I often overreact at the slightest change out of the fear that something is seriously wrong. This means it is so much worse when the difference is something as noticeable as a sudden inability to walk straight. How are you meant to know the best thing to do in such a situation?
Although it’s difficult, the first thing you have to do is make sure you don’t panic. At this point, getting yourself worked up will make it harder for you to think clearly and get your furry friend the help they need.
Instead, take a deep breath and follow the steps I’ve outlined below. The situation isn’t yet an emergency, and your vet can likely help you make your cat feel much better in just a few days.
1. Pay Attention to Your Cat’s Symptoms
In the first half hour after first noticing your cat’s “drunken” behavior, make sure to look out for any other symptoms your kitty may be displaying. For example, note if your cat is also noticeably tilting their head, continuously moving their eyes from side to side, or vomiting so that you can give as much information to your vet as possible.
Anything out of the ordinary could provide insight into what has triggered these symptoms in your feline friend. At this point, no detail is too small.
2. Call Your Veterinarian
Within an hour, you should make sure to contact your vet. You don’t need to book an appointment unless advised to do so, but a telephone consultation will help you to identify the next steps that should be taken.
When on the phone, make sure to give a detailed account of the symptoms you have noticed within the last hour. You know your cat best, so mention any behaviors that seem out of the blue, even if they may be normal in another one of your pets. You may also be asked about your feline’s diet, current health conditions, and any new medications they may be taking.
Your vet will take all this into account when advising the best plan of action. Sometimes, they may ask you to continue observing your kitty at home. At other times, they may want you to bring your furry friend in for an appointment.
3. Follow Your Vet’s Instructions
Once you get off the phone with your vet, follow the instructions they give you carefully. If you report that your kitty has been vomiting, your vet will likely want to examine them in person. Make sure to book this appointment as soon as possible so that the correct treatment can be determined.
This appointment will probably include a physical examination and a series of tests to diagnose your feline with either central or peripheral vestibular disease. If no underlying cause can be found, you will then be advised to take your kitty home and try and relieve their symptoms as best you can. Your vet may provide medications to assist you in this.
Depending on the information you provide, your vet may suggest you keep your furry friend at home and observe their symptoms over the next few days. Suppose this is the advice you are given. In that case, your vet likely thinks that your kitty’s sudden incoordination is due to idiopathic vestibular disease, and the symptoms will resolve on their own.
4. Call Back if Your Cat’s Condition Deteriorates
What happens if you have been following your vet’s instructions and your cat’s condition doesn’t get better, or worse, deteriorates? In this instance, you must get back in contact with the vet and explain the situation immediately.
Depending on how bad your feline’s condition gets, it may be best to take them for an in-person appointment straight away. Whether this is required is up to your discretion; every cat is different, and you will always be the best judge of whether something is seriously wrong.
If you notice your cat is limping but not crying, it is likely a sign that they may have injured themselves by falling over. Even though your furry friend doesn’t always vocalize their pain, having any such injuries checked out is still important, so they don’t get any worse. Either mention the injury to your vet when you call them or book your cat in for an appointment to have it treated straight away.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
If you notice your cat suddenly walking like a drunk, take note of any other behavior or mobility changes and contact your vet as soon as possible. Your kitty is likely suffering from some form of vestibular disease, a type of ataxia that interferes with the functioning of the system in charge of balance.
Although not classed as an emergency, the symptoms associated with the condition should be taken seriously, especially as they could be caused by a different underlying condition. A series of tests are required for proper diagnosis, but, in most cases, the cause of the disease will remain unknown.
Luckily your furry friend can be treated whether an underlying condition behind the disease is identified or not. In most cases, they should be back to their usual able-bodied selves within a week or two but remember to call your vet back if they injure themselves or their condition starts to deteriorate.