Vestibular disease is often referred to as “old dog vestibular disease” because it’s most often seen in senior dogs.
When it is seen, the symptoms are often confused with those of a dog that has had a stroke.
The fact is, however, that with proper veterinary intervention, most dogs affected with vestibular disease completely recover in two to three weeks.
Before we talk about recovery, though, let’s get started at the beginning…
What is Vestibular Disease?
Your dog’s sense of balance is regulated by the vestibular system.
The vestibular system is comprised of components in the brain as well as peripheral components in the middle and inner ear.
Sometimes, what one or more components of the vestibular system aren’t functioning as they should, the sense of balance is offset. This disturbance in the vestibular system is referred to as vestibular disease.
What Causes Vestibular Disease in Dogs?
There are a number of contributing factors to vestibular disease, these include:
- Trauma to any part of the vestibular system
- Injury to any part of the vestibular system
- Middle ear infections
- Inner ear infections
- Drugs that have a toxic effect on the inner or middle ear
In some cases of vestibular disease in dogs, the cause is not identified and this is referred to as “idiopathic vestibular syndrome.” Dogs affected with idiopathic vestibular syndrome undergo a rapid onset of symptoms but can recover quickly with minimal veterinary intervention.
Why Are Old Dogs More Prone to Vestibular Disease?
Older dogs are more prone to experiencing idiopathic vestibular disease – that is, vestibular disease where the source of the disease cannot be identified.
There are many theories behind why this is, but many vets believe that idiopathic vestibular disease is caused by inflammation. This theory fits with the evidence of more older dogs – who experience more inflammation throughout the body – developing idiopathic vestibular disease.
Symptoms of Vestibular Disease
Symptoms of vestibular disease are similar regardless of the cause. When seen in older dogs, however, these symptoms can be much more pronounced.
Symptoms associated with vestibular disease in dogs include:
- A sudden loss of balance
- Irregular, jerky eye movements (nystagmus)
- Tilting the head to the side
- Leaning or falling in the direction of their head tilt
- Reluctance to stand or walk due to loss of balance
Diagnosing Vestibular Disease in Dogs
If your dog shows any signs or symptoms associated with vestibular disease, it’s crucial to head to your vet because symptoms MAY be the result of something much more serious.
Your vet will take information from you about your dog’s symptoms. They will then look over your dog’s medical history before checking the ears and eyes for signs of trouble.
A physical exam will also help your vet to determine whether your dog has suffered a stroke or seizure or something else. For example, most dogs that have had a stroke will not correct a paw when you lift it and flip it over. Post-stroke dogs will also often have circular eye movements instead of the jerking eye movements associated with vestibular disease.
Your vet may also want to run a complete blood panel to check blood chemistry as well as run a urinalysis.
Depending on what your vet finds, your dog may need to undergo imaging tests to get a better look at the inner ear as well as look for tumors in the brain.
Treating Vestibular Disease
The treatment of vestibular disease in dogs varies depending on the cause. For example, if your dog has an inner ear infection that has caused their vestibular disease symptoms, treatment of the infection will lead to improvement in symptoms.
In the case of idiopathic vestibular disease, supportive treatment is offered to get your pup through the most serious symptoms. The most critical time for care in a dog with vestibular disease is the first two days.
Throughout their symptoms, your dog may need sedation, IV fluids, anti-nausea medications, or motion sickness medications to help them to function. The aim of these treatments is to reduce the panic, feeling of nausea, and prevent dehydration until symptoms improve. Once symptoms improve, your pup will be able to function without these medications.
Within 2 to 3 weeks, your dog’s vestibular disease symptoms should have resolved completely. In some cases, though, “residual” symptoms remain for the rest of the dog’s life. The most common of these is unsteady walking and a slight head tilt.
Treating Vestibular Disease at Home
If your pup is not suffering from severe symptoms that impair their ability to eat or remain healthy, your vet may send you home.
Managing vestibular disease at home is all about keeping your pup safe.
- Block off stairs with a baby gate
- Use a harness or sling to help your dog use the bathroom if needed
- Keep your dog comfortable
- Monitor food and water intake
- Don’t allow your dog to attempt climbing stairs or getting onto furniture alone
- For dogs completely unable to stand, you may need to use doggy diapers until symptoms subside
Although vestibular disease in dogs can be scary to see, it is frequently referred to as “good news” by vets when it occurs in older dogs. Why?
Because dogs usually show improvement in just a couple of days, plus, vestibular disease is a much better diagnosis than a stroke or tumor!