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Home > Cats > Cat Suddenly Walking Like They’re Drunk? 16 Vet-Reviewed Reasons

Cat Suddenly Walking Like They’re Drunk? 16 Vet-Reviewed Reasons

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When your cat loses their sense of coordination, it can be quite frightening. The medical term for this is “ataxia”, which basically describes the symptoms a cat displays when a loss of coordination occurs, like walking in a wobbly fashion or as if drunk, rolling to one side, showing strange eye movements, drowsiness, head tilt, or nausea. In this post, we’ll explore possible causes for your cat’s wobbliness 1.

Ataxia is a broad term, covering three different types: Vestibular – affecting the inner ear and brain stem, sensory – affecting the spinal cord and cerebellar – affecting fine motor movement. If your cat is walking like they’re drunk or showing any of the symptoms described in this post, please contact your vet right away.


Vestibular Ataxia

This section describes possible causes for ataxia linked to the vestibular system, which is inside the inner ear and brain stem.

1. Poisoning

If your cat has consumed or been in contact with something toxic, for example, a toxic plant or household substance, it may cause them to walk unsteadily 2. Other symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, drooling, trouble breathing, and twitching.

cat vomiting
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2. Tumors or Polyps

Tumors or polyps in the middle or inner ear can cause a loss of balance and head tilting 3.

3. Infection or Inflammation

Sometimes, inflammation or infection in the middle or inner ear can occur, causing ataxia and other symptoms like yellow or black discharge and a buildup of wax 4. In some cases, serious viral conditions like Feline Infectious Peritonitis can be the cause5.

sick cat
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4. Ear or Head Trauma

Among other things, moving abnormally is sometimes the result of trauma to the head or ear. Cats suffering from trauma may also lose consciousness, have seizures, have difficulty breathing, and have an irregular heartbeat among other symptoms 6.

5. Idiopathic Vestibular Disease

Idiopathic vestibular disease is a condition that causes cats to have problems with balance. Its symptoms can come on quite suddenly, with a cat appearing perfectly normal in one moment, then walking as if they were drunk the next. In some cases, as discussed above, infection, trauma, or tumors in the middle or inner ear can be implicated, but when a cause is not able to be identified, it is referred to as “idiopathic” 7.

red tabby cat in pain walking on grass outdoor
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6. Metabolic Disorders

Certain metabolic disorders like hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) can cause a wobbly gait, weakness, and lethargy 8.


Sensory Ataxia

Some instances of ataxia are caused by sensory/spinal cord issues like the following.

7. Birth Defects

If the spine or vertebrae is malformed at birth, genetics are to blame. Such defects can cause compression in the spinal cord, which results in ataxia. There are several types of congenital defects affecting the spine or vertebrae, including but not limited to spina bifida, occipital bone deformation, and transitional vertebrae 9.

Mother cat with her kittens
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8. Spinal Cord Compression

In some cases, like when a cat has a tumor or a defect in the spine or vertebrae, it can cause compression or injury to the spinal cord leading to ataxia.

9. Degenerative Diseases of the Spinal Cord

Spinal cord disorders can cause degeneration of the spinal cord, which results in difficulties with movement 10.

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10. Stroke

A stroke, which is caused by a blood clot or rupture in the blood vessels within the brain, can cause symptoms like weakness, circling, walking abnormally, and head tilt.


Cerebellar Ataxia

If a cat has problems with fine motor movement, the cause may be related to the cerebellum, the part of the brain which controls these functions.

11. Thiamine Deficiency

When a cat isn’t getting enough vitamin B1, it’s called a thiamine deficiency. Thiamine deficiency can cause a lack of coordination, circling, and an unusual gait.

Sick cat
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12. Brain Tumors

Like middle and inner-ear tumors, brain tumors are responsible for a variety of symptoms relating to movement, including a wobbly gait, bumping into things, and, one of the most giveaway symptoms, seizures.

13. Inflammation or Infection in the Brain

Encephalitis, for example, is a serious brain inflammation in cats that can be caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungal infections among other things. The list of symptoms attached to encephalitis is long, but it can cause ataxia among other behavioral changes.

persian cat checked by vet.
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14. Panleukopenia Virus

If a mother cat suffers from panleukopenia virus—also known as feline distemper—it can cause structural abnormalities in kittens’ cerebellums. This can cause ataxia symptoms in kittens.

15. Metronidazole Toxicity

Metronidazole is an antibiotic sometimes prescribed to treat intestinal conditions like diarrhea. At very high doses, it can cause neurotoxicity, which can lead to vestibular ataxia in a cat.

cat taking medicine
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16. Cerebellar Degeneration

This condition causes cell death within the cerebellum, which can result in ataxia and other symptoms like muscle tremors and an unusual posture.


Other Possible Causes

  • Low blood sugar
  • Heart disease
  • Respiratory disease
  • Anemia
  • Electrolyte imbalance

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The causes of ataxia—which causes cats to walk like they’re drunk or experience other issues with movement—are varied and complex and in this post, we’ve separated possible causes into three different subcategories—vestibular, sensory, and cerebellar.

Some conditions causing ataxia can be very serious and require immediate treatment, so if you spot any of the symptoms of ataxia in your cat or, indeed, any changes relating to their motor functions, please contact your vet at once to get to the bottom of what’s going on.


Featured Image Credit: Jumpstory

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