Staggering in Dogs

Why is my dog staggering?

What is Staggering?

Should your dog be staggering, he may appear as if he is drunk. You may observe him appearing uncoordinated, having difficulty walking straight, and falling down on occasion. Staggering is often the result of vestibular disease, which impacts the balance systems of your dog’s body. The disease is the result of irritation to the nerves that connect the inner ear to the brain. When this occurs, it leads to a loss of balance along with other issues. There are two forms of vestibular disease. Peripheral vestibular disease is the more common form and it can result from:

  • Ear infection
  • Injury to the ear during cleaning
  • Trauma
  • Tumors
  • Certain medications

Central vestibular disease, the second form, is less common. It may be caused by:

  • Inflammatory disease
  • Infection
  • Trauma
  • Bleeding in the brain
  • Loss of blood flow
  • Cancer

In order to treat your dog’s staggering, you will first have to determine whether he is experiencing vestibular disease and what is causing it.

Why Staggering Occurs in Dogs

Your dog may be staggering as a result of vestibular disease. Peripheral vestibular disease is more common than central vestibular disease and can be the result of:

Ear Infection

Chronic and recurrent inner and middle ear infections can result in vestibular disease as the nerves that connect the inner ear to the brain of your dog are impacted.

Injury to the Ear During Cleaning

A perforated eardrum can result from cleaning your dog’s ear too intensely. Once an eardrum is damaged, hearing loss can occur.


If your dog experiences a head injury, it can result in the nerves that connect the inner ear to the brain being irritated or damaged, resulting in vestibular disease.


The location and size of the tumor can impact the nerves connecting the inner ear to the brain. A loss of balance is a common result.

Certain Medications

Medications like metronidazole can be toxic to the ear, causing damage and leading to vestibular disease. If your pet is experiencing an adverse reaction to a medication, consult your veterinarian without delay.

What to do if your Dog is Staggering

Should you notice that your dog is staggering, you will want to have him examined by your veterinarian right away. In addition to conducting a physical examination, your veterinarian will ask you about the symptoms you have observed and when you first noticed them, as well as whether your dog has been taking any medication. Testing will likely be required in addition to the examination. This can include an MRI of your dog’s ears, a brain CT scan and radiographs. Other possibilities include a CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) analysis which will help to confirm if an infectious or inflammatory disease is present and a BAER (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response) which will help your veterinarian in evaluation of the hearing channels and pathways of your dog.

Once your veterinarian has determined that your dog is experiencing vestibular disease, he will seek to confirm whether it is central vestibular disease or peripheral, as well as what the underlying cause of the condition is. In central vestibular disease, he may observe that your dog has awareness of only one side of his body, is paralyzed unilaterally, has an altered mental state and is experiencing deficits in his cranial nerves (especially V and VII). In peripheral vestibular disease your dog may show normal strength and mental state and demonstrate cranial nerve deficits (in VII and Horner’s only). 

Once your veterinarian has confirmed the cause of vestibular disease in your dog, he can recommend appropriate treatment for that particular condition. In addition to that treatment, supportive care will be important regardless of the underlying condition your dog is experiencing. The following supportive care may be recommended by your veterinarian:

  • Intravenous fluid administration should your dog be dehydrated
  • Medication to alleviate nausea and prevent or minimize vomiting
  • Medication called propentofylline which will help the natural ability of your dog’s brain compensate for vestibular damage
  • Antioxidants and essential fatty acids which will boost the healing ability of your dog’s body

Prevention of Staggering

To prevent your dog from staggering as a result of vestibular disease and one of its possible underlying conditions, you will want to do what you can to promote your dog’s overall health. This includes feeding him a diet that will meet all of his nutritional needs, along with keeping him well hydrated. It is also important that your dog have the opportunity to get plenty of exercise and that he maintains a healthy weight. 

To minimize the opportunity for your dog to experience trauma, you will want to supervise your dog and keep him on a leash when outdoors to help him avoid situations where he can injure himself. Annual examinations by your veterinarian are also important so that any health conditions that are developing can be discovered early before they progress to become more difficult to treat.

Cost of Staggering

The cost of your dog staggering will vary based upon the underlying cause of the condition, as well as the cost of living in the area where he is receiving treatment. On average, the expected cost of treatment for vestibular disease is $1000.

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