My Cat Has Started Walking in Circles

CatChannel veterinary expert Arnold Plotnick, DVM, discusses idiopathic vestibular syndrome and its causes.

By Arnold Plotnick, DVM | Posted: November 6, 2009, 3 a.m. EST

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Q: My 3-year-old cat Peaches was out for a while this morning when I noticed him in the driveway walking in circles and falling over. I brought him in the house, calmed him down, he ate a little and then started to walk funny again.  I rushed him to his vet and they say he might have eaten something. They gave him shots and are keeping him overnight. Will he be OK? I am a nervous wreck right now.
A: I’m pretty sure your cat will be OK.  I suspect your cat has idiopathic vestibular syndrome.
The vestibular system is the part of the nervous system that controls balance. When the vestibular system is not working properly, cats will often show signs such as circling (to one side), falling or rolling to one side, a head tilt, and nystagmus (beating of the eyes back and forth). An inner ear infection is one common cause of vestibular disease in cats. Your vet, however, didn’t detect anything wrong with the ears. 

There are other causes of vestibular signs (brain tumors, encephalitis, etc). However, the sudden onset in a young cat makes me lean toward feline idiopathic vestibular syndrome.  In this syndrome, the vestibular system suddenly goes haywire, for no discernable reason. 

In dogs, it tends to occur in geriatric patients, but in cats, it can strike at any age. The severity can vary, with some cats being almost unable to walk at all without falling and rolling, while other cats are only mildly affected.

Fortunately, most cats show rapid improvement in the first 24 to 72 hours, and then will gradually return to almost 100 percent normal in about three weeks. Some vets have prescribed anti-nausea drugs, anti-vertigo, or anti-inflammatory medications, but it does not change the course of the disease at all. Some cats may retain a bit of a head tilt after recovery, but that’s no problem; to these cats, the world looks normal despite the head tilt. Dogs show this kind of dramatic improvement as well. However, because it occurs in older dogs, people often quickly (and mistakenly) assume that the dog has had a stroke, and will often put the dog to sleep.  I shudder to think of how many dogs with this benign condition have been misdiagnosed as having a stroke and were needlessly euthanized. 

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My Cat Has Started Walking in Circles

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Reader Comments

Christopher    International

6/25/2016 12:17:43 PM

Our cat had a similar time..
Started with walking only in a circle, no focus, not eating... Seemingly semi-conscious. No prrring. Last 8-9 days. Eventually started to eat without being spoon fed.
At 14 days nearly symptom free.

Robert    Croydon, PA

3/23/2012 8:34:01 PM

I believe for what is causing our pets to walk in a circle and lose their balance... It's most likely due high pollen counts during early warm season between February and June. When the pets tried to drink water and eat their favorite food, but shook their heads... Their taste buds were different and bitter due pollen. My sweet 16 yars old cat has lost some hearings in both ears last year as it was caused by pollen.

We, humans, had the same problems with our health from pollen attack! Our tongue taste funny, too, in drinking and eating... and the worst part is a common cold!

MJ    Ottawa, ON

9/1/2011 11:35:30 PM

A human friend had something like this: benign positional vertigo. A crystal-like substance in the vestibule of the deep inner ear was upset or floating in the wrong area. It causes some permanent damage in the ear, but my friend recovered 80% after 3 days, then physiotherapy to 'reset' the crystal took place and he recovered. It may recur. My friend was 50+ at the time and it was preceded and accompanied by nausea.

Bob    Joliet, IL

8/27/2011 8:54:59 AM

My Cat (Kramer) had this. He could only walk in circles for days. I had to hold the food bowl and rotate his food in a circular path as he ate otherwise he could not navigate to a fixed position to eat or drink. The symptoms finally wore off enough by the end of the week that he could manage on his own. Now he is the same rascal as before... although sometimes when waiting for his bowl of food he will do a couple of excited circle laps before I set the food down.

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