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What is Unbalanced?

If your cat is experiencing episodes of clumsy movement or an uncoordinated gait they may be suffering from an imbalance condition known as ataxia.  Ataxia is a neurological condition that can produce abnormal movement in the head, torso, legs or all three simultaneously.

Ataxia is a symptom of an underlying neurological condition and may cover a broad range of potential issues in your cat from harmless to life threatening.  The severity and types of symptoms will vary depending on the underlying cause of ataxia but the common signs to look for include an unsteady or wobbly gait, leaning to one side, swaying, high stepping gait (goose-stepping), stiff legged gait with rigid front legs, and widely splayed hind legs.  Other signs of ataxia in your cat may include vomiting, tremors, and nystagmus (uncontrolled rapid eye movement).

There are three types of ataxia in cats, cerebellar, vestibular, and sensory.  Your cats will display symptoms related to the type of underlying condition as ataxia is not considered a disease in itself.  Some of the common reasons a cat may be unbalanced include: 

  • Inflammation of the brain or membranes protecting the brain and spinal cord
  • Poisoning and toxin ingestion 
  • Ear infection caused by bacteria or virus
  • Spinal trauma due to a high fall or vehicular accident

Why Unbalanced Occurs in Cats

The age, sex, and the breed of your cat do not affect the manifestation of ataxia as there are many potential underlying causes. Additionally, symptoms may overlap between the three types; cerebellar, vestibular, and sensory.  The type and severity of symptoms will help you and your veterinarian identify potential root causes of imbalance in your cat.

Cerebellar Cause Such as Encephalitis

The cerebellum is a part of the brain that controls motor functions such as balance and coordination.  Cerebellar ataxia may occur if the cerebellum is damaged or inflamed.  Damage to your cat’s cerebellum can happen in developmental stages or manifest later in life depending on the type of damage.  Cerebellar ataxia may be caused by:

  • Cerebral Hypoplasia – Stunting of the cerebellum before birth due to exposure to Panleukopenia virus in utero
  • Encephalitis – Inflammation of the brain
  • Meningitis – Inflammation of the proactive coating around the brain and spinal cord
  • Ticks or spider bites
  • Nutritional deficiency in Vitamin E or Thiamine (B1)

Vestibular Cause Such as Skull Tumor

Vestibular conditions relate to the inner ear and the complex system of nerves and receptors that govern balance and coordination of the head and eyes.  Vestibular ataxia may be transitory, last two to three weeks and is harmless, but other underlying diseases may be present with ataxia related to the vestibular system including:

  • Trauma to the ear or head
  • Middle ear infection
  • Tumors in ear or skull
  • Thiamine (B1) deficiency

Sensory Cause Such as Toxin Ingestion

Ataxia related to sensory trauma or disease affects your cat’s sense of position and movement and is due to dysfunction or injury to the nerves of the spinal cord.  Your cat may be unbalanced due to:

  • Accidents or high falls
  • Ingested toxins
  • Spinal stroke
  • Nerve damage due to diabetes

If your cat has suffered an accident, you should seek immediate medical attention.  As a cat owner, you are sensitive to subtle changes in your pet and should monitor any changes in your cat’s behavior as well as seek appropriate treatments as needed.

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What to do if your Cat is Unbalanced

Depending on the underlying cause, ataxia in your cat may be transitory and harmless or potentially life threatening.  You will want to monitor the symptoms as well as the severity of the condition over time and be on the lookout for additional symptoms such as vomiting, lethargy, or loss of appetite.  You should consult your veterinarian if your cat experiences any sustained or increased signs of imbalance or accompanying symptoms and you always should seek immediate medical attention if you know or suspect your cat has been exposed to any poisons or toxins.

When consulting your veterinarian, he will ask you questions related to your cat’s diet, potential exposure to toxins and poisons, and full medical history, as well as perform a complete physical examination. Your vet will also ask you questions regarding the length and severity of your cat’s symptoms and if your cat has recently experienced any head or back injuries.  

Depending on your veterinarian’s initial examination your cat may require blood and urine analysis to evaluate organ and system functions as well as look for signs of infection or determine dietary deficiencies. Other tests may include CT scans and radiographs to look for masses in the ear and head, or cerebrospinal fluid tap to determine if inflammation is present in the brain or spinal cord.

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Prevention of Unbalanced

Many of the underlying causes of a cat being unbalanced can be prevented by providing a safe and healthy environment for your cat. Diets high in vegetables may lead to a Thiamine (B1) deficiency whereas diets rich in Vitamin A, consisting mostly of liver, may result in hypervitaminosis A.  Both nutritional disorders can lead to ataxia.

As a cat owner, you must also do your due diligence to keep toxins such as bleach, spilled antifreeze, insecticides, and rodenticides away from your cat.  There are many more potential toxins and poisons that can harm your cat and you can consult the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) for a complete list of the potential poisons and toxins found in and around your home.  

Finally, keeping your cat safely inside and away from ledges where they may fall from a great distance will prevent accident trauma; though this is harder to avoid, especially with a cat who spends time outdoors.  Keeping your cats indoors more often will also reduce the likelihood of insect and spider bites and exposure to bacterial and viral infections.    

Other conditions that may produce ataxia are not as easily prevented or even avoided, such as developmental issues, tumors, and other masses so it is important to be aware and sensitive to your cat’s behavior.

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Cost of Unbalanced

Treatment cost will vary depending on the underlying cause for your cat’s imbalance.  For example, a nutritional disorder such as Thiamine (B1) deficiency will cost around $400 whereas a brain tumor or cancer may cost as much as $8,000 to treat.  However, the average cost of loss of balance related conditions is about $1,200.

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Unbalanced Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

Need pet health advice? Ask a vet

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Ask a Vet

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Orange tabby

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6 weeks

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Unknown severity

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0 found helpful

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Unknown severity

Has Symptoms

Unbalance

Thia is sudden. Was fine this morning. Came home to find him uncoordinated and walking like he's drunk.

Aug. 1, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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0 Recommendations

Thank you for your question. It is possible that he got into a toxin, had a trauma or some kind, or is being affected by an infectious disease. It would be best to have him seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible, as they can examine him and see what might be causing the problem. I hope that all goes well for him!

Aug. 1, 2020

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