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What is Unintentional Eye Movement?

The technical term for unintentional eye movement in cats is called nystagmus. Nystagmus as a symptom of vestibular syndrome in cats is typically caused by mild trauma to or a disease of the vestibular apparatus, located inside the cat’s ear. The vestibular apparatus is responsible for helping cats maintain their balance and coordination.

Involuntary eye movement in cats is often part of feline vestibular syndrome. This disorder of the nervous system will cause your cat to become less coordinated than usual, and may result in your cat falling to one side, walking unsteadily, or struggling to balance normally.

Symptoms of Unintentional Eye Movement in Cats

If your cat is suffering from involuntary eye movement, it is likely that the eye movement is indicative of vestibular disease or another type of trauma disease. Look for the symptoms to occur suddenly and often over the course of one hour. The symptoms can include:

  • Ataxia, or the sudden loss of control over body movement
  • Tilting of the head
  • Vomiting
  • Eyes darting rapidly back and forth
  • Drooping of the face (usually associated with tumors or an inflamed inner ear)


While the symptoms may not seem very serious, it is important to take your cat to the vet as soon as you begin to notice them. Nystagmus is not fatal, but it can be indicative of a more serious health problem, such as:

  • Progressive retinal atrophy (deterioration of the retina)
  • Hyperviscosity syndrome (thickening of the blood)
  • Hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar)
  • Fungal infection
  • Head trauma
  • Nasopharyngeal polyps (growths in the throat, ear, and mouth)

Causes of Unintentional Eye Movement in Cats

The causes of unintentional eye movement in cats are not entirely understood at present. Most diagnoses of vestibular disease are determined to have an unknown cause. However, it appears that nystagmus as a symptom of vestibular syndrome is primarily caused by ear infections. For older cats, tumors may also be a potential culprit. It is also important to note that several cats that are affected by the syndrome are deaf.

Additionally, Siamese and Burmese cats can exhibit symptoms of vestibular syndrome, as it is often inherited at birth for these breeds.

Diagnosis of Unintentional Eye Movement in Cats

Currently, there are no special tests that your vet will conduct in order to determine whether or not your cat is suffering from vestibular disease. The vet will likely want to watch your cat try to move around, and is likely to ask how long your cat has been showing symptoms. They will also want to know your cat’s medical history, so be sure to provide them with this information.

Standard procedure for diagnosing vestibular syndrome is to perform neurological and ear examinations. If tumors or a more serious health problem are suspected causes, the vet may utilize other tests, including an MRI, an X-ray of the skull, cultures of the ear, or blood and urine tests.

Treatment of Unintentional Eye Movement in Cats

The appropriate course of treatment will depend on the underlying cause, if one is discovered.


If nystagmus and overall vestibular syndrome are a result of a tumor, the vet or surgeon will likely perform a biopsy, followed by surgical removal of the tumor, if required. In some cases, laser surgery is used. Malignant tumors may also be treated with chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Tumors usually affect middle-aged and older cats.

Ear or Fungal Infection

Feline ear infections are typically treated with a course of antibiotics. Anti-fungal medications are also available to treat fungal infections. Severe and recurring cases of ear infection may require surgical treatment.

No Known Cause

A course of treatment will be prescribed based on the severity of symptoms. If your cat is vomiting or having trouble eating, your vet may prescribe medications that reduce vomiting. It is also essential that you monitor your cat while they eat, as they may experience difficulties.

Recovery of Unintentional Eye Movement in Cats

Fortunately, vestibular syndrome that has no known cause is usually a temporary condition that resolves on its own. The unintentional eye movement should clear up within a few days. In most cases, it won’t come back.

However, if your cat’s involuntary eye movement is a symptom of a more serious disease, the prognosis will depend on the method of treatment and the disease itself. For cats that experience recurring ear infections, invasive surgery may be required. This surgery may involve removing important parts of the ear, which can result in a loss of hearing.

If nystagmus is a result of a tumor, the prognosis is relatively good compared to that of other types of tumors. Cats that have ear tumors and are treated with a thorough surgery typically won’t have a recurring tumor for about three and a half years. The tumor recurrence rate is 25 percent.

If the nystagmus does not resolve on its own within a week, take your cat back to the vet immediately.

Unintentional Eye Movement Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

Maine Coon
4 years
Moderate condition
0 found helpful
Moderate condition

my maine coon ear goo so i took him to the vet. he had (as expected) an ear infection. he was given a shot and some ear drops yesterday. now he has nystagmus. will this clear up or is this another emergency vet visit?

Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
1205 Recommendations
The nystagmus is most likely related to the ear infection, it doesn’t warrant an emergency visit but you should keep an eye on it. Ear infections may cause nystagmus (vestibular apparatus) or there are reports of nystagmus after the use of gentamicin. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

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