As you walk around the Sanctuary you will notice several cats that carry their heads with a slight tilt to one side. In most cases, this is an aftermath of vestibular disease. It may come on very quickly. It affects the cat’s inner ear, making the cat suddenly become uncoordinated – frequently staggering or falling, sometimes walking in circles. The eyes dart back and forth (nystagmus). Occasionally the condition may be caused by a tumour, or by an ear infection, but in many cases it’s idiopathic, meaning “we don’t know!”
There’s little to be done other than keeping the cat in a safe place so that it can’t fall. An antibiotic can help rule out a standard ear infection, and an anti-nauseant will make it easier for the cat to eat – the sensation must be like living with sea-sickness. In most of our big cages the mid-level shelf is taken out so that the cat doesn’t attempt to jump and then fall, and the floor is well covered with bedding. The latter may have to be changed frequently, because an uncoordinated cat sometimes finds it hard to use the litter box.
A frequent greeter at the gate to the back courtyard is Yoda. His go-round with vestibular disease was some time ago, but the head tilt is still apparent. It doesn’t stop him being one of the most attention-seeking of the cats. With his favourite human friends, he likes to climb up and put his paws around your neck, butting his head into your hair. My Friday mornings begin with cleaning the volunteers’ Tea-Room, and Yoda is always there for a morning greeting.
Also hanging around the Tea-Room is a small black cat, instantly recognizable by the head-tilt. We have a number of black cats, and it’s not always easy to tell them apart, but you never have problems identifying Kenya. She’s still very shy, but in the last year or so has become more accepting of attention, and ready to interact with a few humans.
Rarely in the Tea-Room, but often in the courtyard just outside is Tibet, with his beautiful brown-black markings. Tibet was very wary of humans before his encounter with vestibular disease, choosing to approach only a few; weeks of cage-time and human attention have turned him into a boy who loves to be petted, frequently jumping up on the table to get really close.
Interestingly, the king of head-tilt – Babylon, in the single-wide – came into the Sanctuary with the group of cats that included Tibet. There doesn’t seem to be any resemblance between them, but one wonders if there might not be a genetic quirk in common. Babylon remains very tilty-headed, for the most part, but it seems to be a habit more than anything – he can straighten himself up, and he can also turn his head around rather like an owl. Like Tibet, the human attention he received as part of his care has turned him from being a shy boy into an attention-seeker.
Paulo, in the front courtyard, is in a different category. One of the family of our little one-eyed Val, he had a go-round with vestibular disease a while ago, and emerged with a bit of a tilt, but otherwise all right. More recently he had a more serious episode that may just have compounded what had gone before, or that may have been a mild stroke. He had a long period of cage-care, and though he’s been out for some time, he still staggers, and is pretty uncoordinated. But he loves attention and his brother Silverfox has been seen taking care of him from time to time – sideways stagger and all, Paulo is very much part of the front courtyard crowd.