Ask A Vet: Why Is My Cat Staggering?


If you are a cat lover, you are probably tuned in to the way your cat acts and what is normal for her. If your cat seems off balance or staggers when he tries to walk, it is very alarming. There are many causes for such abnormal behavior and it sometimes helps to know some of the possibilities.

Staggering or falling over can be called ataxia. The inability to maintain a normal upright posture is often a neurologic problem.  The imbalance can be accompanied by other signs that will help you and your veterinarian narrow down the cause.

Developmental disorders occur when something goes awry during an animal’s formation and growth. These things can be secondary to infectious processes or just a mishap in development. An example of developmental disorder causing this type of symptom in cats can occur when a mother cat becomes infected with feline panleukopenia (a very contagious virus that we routinely vaccinate for) during her pregnancy. This virus stunts growth of the cerebellum in the gestating kittens and leads to a condition known as Cerebellar Hypoplasia. The signs are usually noticed in young kittens. Affected kittens may stagger and tremble, but are not otherwise ill and mild cases can live a normal life span as a protected pet. Sometimes the process is just too severe for the kitten to lead any semblence of normal life and humane euthanasia is the only option. A vet can help advise you if your kitten suffers from Cerebellar Hypoplasia.

Poisoning and toxic ingestion can also lead to staggering and ataxia.  Toxicity can come from external sources, like toxic plants or chemicals, but advanced metabolic disease can present like a toxicity because of the imbalance of chemicals inside the body. The most notorious of the external toxic risks that can cause tremors and imbalance include antifreeze poisoning and topical insecticides meant for dogs. If there is any possibility that your cat could have been exposed to one of these toxins, take her to your veterinarian right away and explain the possibility of exposure. If you are certain that your cat could not have been exposed, see a veterinarian anyway to rule out metabolic toxicities.

Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) can also occur in cats. Like any inflammation, it can be infectious, parasitic or auto-immune. If no one is able to figure out the exact etiology, it is called idiopathic. Cats suffering from encephalitis are very ill, often progressing from uncoordinated movements to seizures and unresponsiveness. Cats that are stumbling, acting very sick with fever and seem to be worsening are an emergency. They should be rushed to a veterinarian immediately and if it is after-hours, go to the animal ER.

Idiopathic Vestibular Disease is another condition in which the exact mechanism is not fully understood. These cats will stagger and fall easily. They usually have a head tilt and abnormal rapid eye movements called nystagmus. These symptoms combine into a frightening display that looks very life threatening, but if a cat is truly affected by Idiopathic Vestibular Disease, her prognosis is actually good if her symptoms can be managed while the condition runs its course (usually a few days, although the head tilt may remain). Hospitalization may be required for these cases as the imbalance can lead to motion sickness, anorexia and dehydration.

Injuries to the head can cause ataxia and lack of balance also. Sometimes you will not know that your cat fell or struck its head, but cats are so nimble that this is lower on the list of possible causes. Cats that routinely spend time outdoors however, do get struck by cars and suffer head trauma. Sometimes head injury cats will have a bloody nose or unequal pupils, in addition to the staggering and imbalance. Emergency treatment and stabilization should be instituted as soon as possible for any cat that could have a head injury. The prognosis will vary depending upon the severity of the injury.

Usually a veterinarian will be able to differentiate fairly easily between these major causes of staggering and ataxia and many others.  Sometimes diagnostic tests are required.  Not all of these causes carry a guarded prognosis and early intervention can be the difference between life and death. These are just some of the causes of neurologic signs for cats, so if you feel that your cat’s issue is not quite described here, please ask your veterinarian to help. These descriptions are intended to help cat lovers, but not to be a substitute for veterinary care. A cat that is acting drunk and cannot walk straight needs to be evaluated by a veterinary professional as soon as possible.

Please look me up on TwitterFacebook and Google+ . I love hearing about your pets!

vet thumbnailAbout The Author: Dr. Kathryn Primm is a practicing small animal veterinarian and practice owner at Applebrook Animal Hospital in Ooltewah, TN.  She has consulted on articles for national magazines, done numerous radio interviews and appeared on local television. She has contributed to articles for Prevention magazine (April 2015) and Woman’s Day (Feb 2014 and June 2015). Her radio segment Chattanooga Pet Talk airs each week on all the local iHeart Media affiliates.

She has a social media presence on TwitterFacebook and Google+ and enjoys interaction with others about her passions, animals and communication.  She has written a book, Tennessee Tails:Pets and Their People. The book received recognition as Runner Up in the Memoirs category at a national book festival. You can read more about Dr. Primm and how to get the best value for your pet care dollar at her website,

Written by Dr. Kathryn Primm
Story Page

Would you donate 10 seconds of your time to help shelter cats?


Signup for Our Newsletter, and We'll Donate 1 Meal to a Shelter Cat In Need!

Because we believe all cats matter, we created an email newsletter that’s packed with health & training tips, safety info, and products that support animal shelters. Can we send it to you?

Thank you for signing up!