6 Reasons for Disorientation in Cats

Kelly Roper
disoriented cat

If you're concerned that your kitty seems a bit more confused than normal, it helps to understand some of the possible reasons for disorientation in cats. From feline vestibular disease to the possibility of rat poison or another toxin, there are several potential causes for dizziness, wandering, and behavioral changes.

Possible Causes for Feline Disorientation

Feline Cognitive Dysfunction

Disorientation is often observed in senior cats. In fact, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) states that as many as 55 percent of senior cats aged 11 to 15 years old suffer some level of cognitive dysfunction, sometimes referred to as dementia. That statistic rises to 80 percent for cats aged 16 to 20 years old.

The Cornell Feline Health Center (CFHC) at Cornell University also agrees that the natural aging process can affect a cat's brain and lead to:

  • Disorientation
  • Wandering
  • Memory loss
  • Behavioral changes

Reaching a Diagnosis

To reach a diagnosis of feline cognitive dysfunction, a vet will look for a specific medical cause for the symptoms. If medical causes can be ruled out, the symptoms may be attributed to cognitive dysfunction.

Treating Cognitive Dysfunction

According to Shawn Messonnier, DVM in an article published by Integrative Veterinary Care Journal, feline cognitive dysfunction may be treated with supplements such as:

  • SAMe - Increases serotonin and dopamine levels and, ultimately, improves brain function
  • Choline - Supports normal cell structure and function, and can reverse signs of cognitive dysfunction

The effects of cognitive dysfunction, including disorientation, may be lessened with treatment, but there is no cure for the condition.

Feline Vestibular Disease

According to Pet MD, head tilting and disorientation may be signs of vestibular disease. The vestibular system is part of the inner ear, and when it doesn't function properly, it can make a cat feel off balance. Key symptoms include:

  • Tilting the head at angles that aren't in alignment with the rest of the cat's body
  • Walking in circles and stumbling

Reaching a Diagnosis

Vestibular disease can be difficult to diagnose because the exact cause(s) of the disorder aren't fully understood. In order to reach a diagnosis, an affected cat will need a thorough physical examination, including a careful examination of the inner ears to look for signs of infection. The vet may also choose to run a blood work up and urinalysis to look for other sources of infection that could produce the symptoms. Additionally, the owner will need to provide the cat's history leading up to the onset of the disorientation and head tilting.

Treating Vestibular Disease

Treatment may include antibiotics as well as temporary hospitalization if the symptoms are severe. Chances for complete recovery are high in most cases although some head tilting may continue even after treatment.

Seizures

Seizures are caused by a misfiring of neurons in the brain although exactly why the neurons begin misfiring is still a bit of a mystery. According to an article written by Race Foster, DVM, cats are usually disoriented in the aftermath of a seizure as they try to recover. It's possible for a cat to experience a seizure while it's out of its owner's sight and then act disorientated in front of the owner at a later point. Characteristics of a seizure include:

  • Uncontrolled body movements
  • Salivating
  • Involuntary urination and/or defecation

Reaching a Diagnosis

A vet will gather details about the cat's history from the animal's owner in order to understand how frequently the seizures occur, as well as clues about what may trigger them. The vet will also run diagnostic tests in an effort to determine if a medical condition, such as diabetes, a brain tumor, a brain injury, or some other condition is the underlying cause for the seizures.

Treating Seizures

Medication, such as Phenobarbital, is often prescribed to help control the seizures and lessen their frequency and severity. Unfortunately, there is no cure for seizures, and an affected cat will likely remain on anticonvulsant medication for the rest of its life.

Feline Infectious Peritonitis

Feline infectious peritonitis, often referred to as FIP, is a viral disease caused by feline coronavirus. According to Vet Info.com, the disease has a wet and a dry form, and it's the dry form that can cause a cat to appear disoriented. This occurs when granulomas, masses of inflamed tissue, form in the central nervous system. Along with disorientation, other neurological symptoms of dry FIP may include:

  • Behavior changes
  • Loss of balance
  • Convulsions, aka seizures

Reaching a Diagnosis

FIP is diagnosed by comparing a cat's history to the clinical signs it shows, as well as the results of several laboratory tests. The surest way to determine if a cat has FIP is for a vet to biopsy affected tissues, but this typically only occurs after an affected cat has passed away.

Treating FIP

There is no cure for FIP, so treatment usually involves supportive care such as administering IV fluids and providing high-quality nutrition. Prednisone may also be prescribed in an effort to suppress the virus and slow down its progress. These measures can prolong the cat's life, but FIP is nearly always fatal.

Rat Poison

According to Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the rodent poison sodium fluoroacetate, sold under the commercial name "1080," can cause neurological signs such as:

  • Disorientation
  • Aimless wandering
  • Confusion

Reaching a Diagnosis

Cats typically ingest the chemical when they eat a rodent that has consumed the poison. Poisoning is suspected based on the symptoms as well as any information an owner may be able to provide about whether the rat poison was used in the cat's environment. A suspected diagnosis of poisoning is usually confirmed by performing a necropsy to determine the cause of death.

No Treatment Available

Unfortunately, respiratory failure typically occurs between 2 to 12 hours after the first signs of poisoning are noticeable, and there is no antidote to reverse the toxic effects.

Ingesting Toxic Foods

The ASPCA also lists a couple edible items that can make cats disoriented if they ingest them.

  • Bread dough - Once eaten, the yeast in the dough metabolizes the sugar and produces alcohol, which is then absorbed into the cat's bloodstream and causes intoxication. The cat appears drunk and disorientated, and it may eventually vomit the dough. The animal may also have a swollen abdomen due to the dough expanding inside its stomach. Any cat that shows these signs should be monitored by a veterinarian, but most cats will recover on their own.
  • Alcohol - Cats may have access to alcoholic beverages if their owners leave their drinks unattended. Felines are typically drawn to creamy cocktails, but they may take a drink out of any glass they encounter. Drunken disorientation and stupor are the major signs a cat has consumed alcohol, and the animal's ability to recover depends on just how much alcohol it consumed. Cats are very sensitive to alcohol and can die from alcohol poisoning quite easily, so an owner should contact a veterinarian right away if she suspects her pet may have shared a drink.

Call Your Vet Immediately

Disorientation can be a sign of significant illness, so don't take it lightly. Put your pet in a safe place, such as a carrier, and contact your vet. Your vet is the most qualified person to diagnose your pet and provide the most effective treatment, even if that treatment is just providing supportive care until the cat either recovers or passes away. Swift action on your part could save your pet's life, or at least ease its discomfort, so call your vet right away at the first sign of disorientation.

6 Reasons for Disorientation in Cats