Can Dogs Live with Vestibular Disease?

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Introduction

If you were to notice your dog all of a sudden start tilting their head, struggle to maintain their balance, fall over and have abnormal jerking eye movements, you could be forgiven for fearing the worst. And most owners do just that, rushing to the vet practically certain that their pet has suffered a stroke.

However, these symptoms are commonly described by vestibular disease, a condition which has plenty of potential causes but is actually a whole lot less serious than it looks. In many cases, it arises spontaneously and then resolves itself of its own accord. 

So, what exactly is vestibular disease and what does it mean for your pooch? Let's take a closer look.

Signs and Symptoms of Vestibular Disease

The vestibular system is responsible for helping your dog maintain normal balance, so as you can imagine, when it's not working properly there are some pretty obvious signs to keep an eye out for. These symptoms occur suddenly and the condition most commonly affects older dogs.

The first sign many owners notice is a sudden loss of balance. This is sometimes described as your dog acting as if they're a drunken sailor on a boat in rough seas — their head tilts to one side, they're unsteady on their feet and may fall over, and they tend to circle in one direction or may even roll along the floor.

There are a few other signs to look out for as well. One of those is abnormal, irregular jerking eye movements known as nystagmus, while many dogs will also become disorientated or confused. A reluctance to stand or walk is common, and the dizziness will often lead to nausea or vomiting. 

Seeing your previously perfectly healthy pet suddenly develop such extreme symptoms can be distressing to say the least, and you'll no doubt be eager to get your pet to the vet as soon as possible. Veterinary attention is essential, but the good news is that the condition will often go away of its own accord.

Body Language

Your dog's body language could contain telltale clues that they are suffering from vestibular disease. Signs to keep an eye out for include:
  • Head tilting
  • Lack of focus

Other Signs

Other signs to look for include:
  • Loss of balance
  • Stumbling and falling over
  • Irregular jerking eye movements
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Reluctance to stand or walk

The Science of Dogs Getting Vestibular Disease

Your dog's vestibular system has the job of helping your pet maintain normal balance, and the system has components located in the brain as well as in the inner and middle ear.

So when a dog suffers from vestibular disease, they experience a sudden but non-progressive disturbance of their sense of balance. In other words, they probably feel like the whole world is spinning. You'll commonly see the condition referred to as "old dog vestibular disease", alluding to the fact that it most commonly occurs in geriatric pooches.

As for what causes it, well, veterinarians aren't entirely sure. Vestibular disease is idiopathic, which means it arises from an unknown cause, but it is quite a common problem among senior canines.

However, there are several other reasons why your dog's sense of balance may be upset. This results when the parts of the balance system contained in the ear are affected, for example, due to an infection, vigorous cleaning, trauma, tumors, and certain medications. 

But if no specific cause for the disease can be found, the diagnosis will be one of idiopathic vestibular disease. While there are rare cases where idiopathic vestibular disease isn't benign and a dog can be severely affected, these are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time, the prognosis for your canine companion will be quite good.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Vestibular Disease

If your pet is showing any symptoms of vestibular disease, seek veterinary attention as soon as possible. Your vet will conduct a full physical examination, assess your pet's medical history and conduct blood and urine tests to get to the bottom of the problem. Some pets will also need radiographs so your vet can take a look at your dog's middle and inner ears, while magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans are required in some cases to check for tumors or other abnormalities.

The focus is on determining whether there is any determinable cause for your dog's loss of balance and other symptoms, such as an ear infection or a tumor. If these causes can be ruled out and your dog is diagnosed with idiopathic vestibular disease, in many cases vets will recommend adopting a "wait and see" approach.

While there's no "silver bullet" to cure the condition, the focus is on treating and managing the symptoms.
For example, your dog may need careful monitoring to prevent falls, may need help going to the bathroom, or may need assistance eating and drinking. Keeping your pet calm and relaxed is also recommended.

Motion sickness medications can relieve nausea and vomiting and an IV can be used to replace lost fluids, while severely disoriented pets or those struggling to stand can be given sedatives to help them relax. In short, the overall focus is on supportive care and confinement to encourage a speedy recovery. 

Most dogs with idiopathic vestibular disease often have the most severe symptoms during the first 24 to 48 hours. Many will start to improve within 72 hours of the first symptoms becoming apparent, and most animals will completely recover within two to three weeks. 

While a small number of patients will have residual symptoms such as a head tilt or a slight wobble, these typically will not have any serious impact on a pet's quality of life. 

How to React if Your Dog Shows Signs of Vestibular Disease:

  • Stay calm. Though the symptoms can look alarming and distressing, remember that idiopathic vestibular disease will usually resolve itself all on its own. Try not to panic and instead focus on looking after your furry friend.
  • Protect your pet. Provide the assistance your pet needs to stay safe until you can seek veterinary attention. For example, do what you can to help your pooch stay calm and to ensure they don't injure themselves when falling.
  • See your vet. Just because vestibular disease often resolves itself doesn't mean you shouldn't seek urgent veterinary attention. Your vet will be able to determine if there is any underlying cause for your dog's symptoms and provide the treatment your pet needs to get back on their feet.

We Want to Hear Your Story of Vestibular Disease!