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What is Swaying Back and Forth?

Whenever the connection between the brain and the inner ears are interrupted, the balance is affected. The system that controls balance is called the vestibular system, which has its central components located in the brain and the peripheral components within the ear. If this system is damaged in any way, vestibular disease can occur; also known as old vestibular syndrome and canine idiopathic vestibular syndrome. Typically seen in older dogs, the definition of this disease is a sudden and non-progressive disturbance of balance. While there are quite a few reasons why vestibular disease can occur, here are some of the most common ones:

  • Middle or inner ear infections
  • Trauma or injury
  • Tumors 
  • Stroke 
  • Tick-borne Illness 

Even though the word ‘disease’ can be frightening, vestibular disease typically isn’t harmful and usually will go away on its own. There is no actual cure for vestibular disease, yet steps can be taken in order to help the healing process go smoothly; such as nausea medication and a medicine called propentofylline, which can help hasten the brain’s ability of restoring itself after damage. Just like the disease can occur quickly, it can also leave quickly on its own with little to no medical assistance. If you notice that your dog is swaying back and forth for a prolonged period of time, along with any of the other vestibular disease symptoms listed below, you may want to visit your vet in order to determine the underlying issue. If none is detected, such as an ear infection, the best thing you can do it to make your dog comfortable while he heals.

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Why Swaying Back and Forth Occurs in Dogs

Vestibular disease affects the nerves that send messages back and forth from the dog’s eyes, inner ears, and body. In doing so, it alters the dog’s ability to balance thus causing him to sway back and forth either while standing or walking. Other symptoms of vestibular disease are:

  • Head tilt 
  • Eye movement from side to side 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Tumbling or falling in the direction their head tilts

There are quite a few reasons why vestibular disease can occur such as ear infections, trauma or injury, tumors, stroke, or even a tick-borne illness like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Although it can be unnerving to see your pet lose balance and control of some normal functions, vestibular disease without an underlying issue is not deadly and tends to correct itself on its own. 

Middle or Inner Ear Infections 

As a common cause of irritation in dogs at all ages, it may come as no surprise to discover that an ear infection can cause your dog to become unbalanced. If this is the case, your vet can prescribe medication to help take away the infection. 

Trauma or Injury 

In severe cases of trauma or injury, the imbalance from vestibular disease may not fully recover. However, if it is a minor injury, using the “wait and see” approach may allow enough time for the problem to fully dissipate on its own. If you wait a few days after a minor injury and the problem still persists, take your dog to the vet in order to determine what the underlying issue may be. 


Tumors on the brain can be a cause for vestibular disease. This growth can interrupt the connection between the central and peripheral components of the vestibular system, making it difficult for the dog to find his bearings. If you notice that your dog is showing signs of vestibular disease, such as swaying back and forth as he walks, holding his head at a tilt, and rapid eye movement, you may want to take your dog to the vet immediately in order to run tests. 


While vestibular disease can be mistaken for stroke, there is a very possible chance that your dog may be experiencing a stroke. If you see that your dog is walking with a head tilt, swaying, and has a loss of appetite you may want to check in with the vet as to any underlying issues, such as stroke. Vestibular disease often leaves just as quickly as it appears, with little to no medical assistance. However, if the reason for your dog’s swaying back and forth is a stroke, the symptoms will linger and you will want to speak with your vet about treatment for your pet. 

Tick-Borne Illness 

Ticks are nasty little bugs that can carry diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which is transmitted by the American dog tick and the lone star tick. In dogs, this fever starts suddenly and can result in sickness that lasts for a couple of weeks. The symptoms are:

  • Neurological abnormalities (loss of balance, confusion, lethargy)
  • Stiffness when walking 

This fever can be deadly if not treated soon enough. If you notice that your dog has been bitten by a tick and he begins to show symptoms of RMSF, then you will want to get your dog to the vet immediately for treatment. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is located all throughout the United States and Canada.

What to do if your Dog is Swaying Back and Forth

If your dog is swaying back and forth, the first thing you should do is apply the “wait and see” approach. Often times, problems such as Vestibular disease will leave just as quickly as they came without any assistance from medication. In order to best gauge the issue, allow a day or so for your dog to heal on his own while monitoring him carefully. If, after a few days, the problem does not resolve itself, you may want to schedule an appointment with the vet in order to determine the underlying issue. 

 After determining what may be causing your dog’s swaying back and forth, you will need to determine how best to handle the situation. If the problem will resolve itself over time, make your dog comfortable until he is healed. You can do this by giving him medication for nausea, providing a quiet place for him to lay, and assisting when he needs to go out and relieve himself. Sometimes the symptoms of serious underlying issues like tumors are more permanent. If that is the case, you will need to constantly help your dog do things such as get upstairs and outside for the restroom. Other lingering effects may be a slight head tilt, which should not lessen your dog’s quality of life in any way. While this may be difficult, with help and care your dog can still live a full and happy life.

Prevention of Swaying Back and Forth

In order to prevent swaying back and forth due to ear infections, the best thing that you can do is perform frequent ear cleanings for your dog. Doing this will help to decrease the chance of an infection setting in due to any foreign bodies or bugs creating damage to the ear. You can perform ear checks and cleanings at home, but always remember to use a gentle cleanser and cotton balls to clean the ear, never alcohol or Q-tips as they can harm the eardrum. 

Other, more serious, underlying issues are a bit more difficult to prevent. Problems such as tumors and stroke tend to come with age and can be caught early with frequent vet checkups. To prevent a tick-borne illness, be sure to check your dog for ticks after playing around outside. Comb through the hair around and inside the ears, as well as around the groin. If you notice that you dog has been bitten by a tick monitor him carefully. If any symptoms such as fever, vomiting, lethargy, difficulty breathing, and loss of balance occur take him to the vet immediately for treatment.

Cost of Swaying Back and Forth

Treatment cost will vary depending on the cause of your dog’s swaying. For instance, if your dog is diagnosed with an ear Infection, the average cost of treatment is $300. If your dog is diagnosed with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, the cost of treatment can range from $1,500 to $8,000 depending on the cost of living and the severity.

Swaying Back and Forth Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

16 Weeks
Mild condition
0 found helpful
Mild condition

Has Symptoms

Swaying, falling, pupils dialated

My dog is 16 weeks old all of the sudden she started swaying and losing her balance we had the same issue about a month ago and the vet said they thought she got into something poisions and kept her over night and gave her fluids and she was fine then all of the sudden she started doing it tonight and she has been right with us all day and night and we are almost certain she hasn't got into anything unless it was while she was outside which wasn't long.

Callum Turner
Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
1811 Recommendations
Swaying, dilated pupils and falling may be associated with a few different causes including poisoning, ear infections, vestibular disorders, head trauma among others. Without examining Lilly I cannot say what the specific cause of the symptoms are, but in a young pup other causes like developmental anomalies should be considered as well. You should visit your Veterinarian again when you see these symptoms for a more comprehensive examination. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

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7 Months
Mild condition
0 found helpful
Mild condition

I brought my dog in from outside & she suddenly started swaying back and forth & is off balance. She did throw up it appeared to be food she had eaten, she ate grass which I think helped her throw up. She won't drink water at the moment. She was running back in forth and now is laying down quietly resting but still seems not to be feeling well possibly nausea.

Callum Turner
Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
1811 Recommendations
There are a few possible causes for the symptoms that you are describing which may include poisoning, head trauma, dehydration among other causes; I would try to encourage Chica to drink, try to syringe it into her mouth just so that she consumes some water and remains hydrated. You can check hydration by pressing on the gums until they go white, let go and it should take less than two seconds for the colour to return; if it is longer visit your Veterinarian. Keep an eye on Chica but if there is no improvement visit your Veterinarian. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

Wow! Identical to my dog! you just posted this 16 mins ago too - weird!

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