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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.

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

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. 

Stroke

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Swaying Back and Forth Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

Need pet health advice? Ask a vet

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Ask a Vet

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Boxer mix

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Eight Months

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Unknown severity

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Head Swaying

Dog is not having straight balance and head is moving side to side.

yesterday

Owner

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Dr. Kate D. MA VetMB MRCVS

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Hello, Thank you for contacting us about your dog. I'm sorry to hear she is unwell. There are several things that can cause a loss of balance and swaying like you describe. These symptoms can be due to an ear infection that affects the balance centers (a bit like labyrinthitis in people), infections that are affecting the nerves, or even toxins if she has managed to eat something she shouldn't. If, for example, this is related to a toxin, I would be worried that her condition might get worse if she doesn't get treatment soon. Because it's not possible for me to narrow down the possibilities any further without examining her, I would recommend you take her to a vet as soon as possible for an examination and assessment. That way, if it is one of the more serious causes, she can get the treatment she needs quickly. I hope she feels better soon.

yesterday

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Corgi

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Five Months

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Vomiting

My corgi recently started throwing up and now he’s just moving back and forth and doesn’t really want to do much.

Sept. 29, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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Thank you for your question, I'm sorry that your puppy is not feeling well. I do worry in puppies about things like parasites and infectious diseases such as parvovirus. If he is not eating, and is vomiting, then he should be seen by a veterinarian right away, as they can examine him and see what is causing this problem. Once they know more, they will be able to let you know what is going on, and how to treat him. I hope that all goes well and he feels better soon.

yesterday

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American Bully

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One Year

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Red Eyes

Recently my dog began to show signs of discomfort, most time when he’s just sitting peacefully he’ll began to tilt his head back and sway it from side to side while crying at the same time I’m so worried and confused

Sept. 11, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Gina U. DVM

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Hello Unfortunately from your description it is difficult to guess what is going on with your pet. He could be uncomfortable or possibly going into a seizure. I recommend that if you are concerned that you should take him to a veterinarian for an exam. Good luck.

Sept. 16, 2020

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Chihuahua

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Three Years

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Head Tilt

My dog needs too see a vet.

Sept. 9, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Kate D. MA VetMB MRCVS

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Hello, Thanks for contacting us about your dog. I'm sorry she is unwell. From your description of her swaying, bobbing her head and having a head tilt, there are a number of possible causes and it's difficult to say which is more likely without knowing more about her and actually examining her. It might be something related to a middle ear infection which is making her feel off-balance (a bit like labrynthitis in people, if you have any experience of that), but it might also be the effect of a toxin or an infection affecting her nervous system. I agree with your conclusion that she needs help and she needs to see a vet. I would recommend making an emergency appointment with your vet as soon as possible. I hope everything goes ok.

Sept. 9, 2020

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Shepherd mix

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Four Years

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Swaying Side To Side And Vomiting,Shaking

He ripped open a garbage back and got inside of it and ate food from there

Aug. 6, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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Thank you for your question. The bacteria and molds in rotting garbage can be extremely toxic if eaten, and it would be best to have your dog seen by a veterinarian immediately. If there is an ER open near your house, that would probably be best. I hope that everything goes well for your dog and he feels better soon.

Aug. 6, 2020

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Dali

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Shih Tzu

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15 Years

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Serious severity

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Serious severity

Has Symptoms

Loss Of Balance
Loss Of Appetite
Swaying
Eyes Moving Back And Forth

Last Thursday we thought we were losing our sweet Dali. He was shaking, vomiting, couldnt walk without swaying, trouble with back legs, and his eyes were moving back and forth out of his control. He's 15. I was afraid to take him in as I feared he'd be put down, so I made him comfortable and did my research. I found this article and wondered if this was his problem. He had all the symptoms. That was Thursday. Friday seemed to be the worst of it. He slept most of the day. I fed him broth with a dropper because he would not eat. I took him out periodically to potty and had to carry him and hold him up so he could go. I gave him CBD for pets for pain. Saturday was a bit better. He tried to walk some but would fall over on his left or bump into things. But he was trying. His eyes stopped rocking on Saturday. Gradually at first, they'd stop then start...then they stopped completely and he seemed to have full control of them. Regaining his eyes helped with walking and he started to get interested in things I was eating. He still only would eat a little bit on Saturday. I also had to hand feed him. I found he could only really grab food off the right side of his mouth and if I held it to the left he couldnt quite aim to grab it. Oh. He was vomiting on Thursday night and Friday morning. .. Once I realized this could be inner ear, I carried him most all of Friday and that helped keep him from swaying and stopped the vomiting as he wasn't swaying around. Anyway...Sunday morning he was looking more like himself. Still had his head cocked to the side and wouldnt eat in the morning. Its Sunday night now. And hes doing MUCH better. Hes walking around some and is regaining his balance. Hes also starting to beg for food. Hes always been spoilt and waits for the better offer...so he wont eat dog food but chicken nuggets and whatever I'm eating hes wanting again which is a good sign. Still hand feeding him. He wont eat out of his bowl or the floor, probably hard to put his head down then lift it up. And I want him to keep down anything he eats. So that's my update. I wanted to share because I know there might be someone like me out there who might benefit. I will say I did not end up taking my dog to the vet, yet. If he had worsened we 100% would have. As I stated he's 15, I know our time is numbered and every day is a blessing. ❤ I will also add that through all of this, even Thursday night... my dog seemed to understand his distress. I think that's important because if your pet is going through this, watch closely for his/her cues. It really helped me know how to help mine. I will also say, he hasn't barked since Thursday. So I'm hoping to hear him again. ❤ Hes normally pretty chatty. Good luck... and bless you and your pet.

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Buddy

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Bull Terrier

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Seven Years

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Moderate severity

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Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Swaying
Leaning
Sudden Energy
Face Sensitivity

Buddy is leaning to one side when standing, not responding to his name, pulls head away when I get close to him, will randomly jump up from laying down and run around the house ending with him standing in one position swaying. Have noticed this behavior before. Happens out of the blue, one minute he'll be fine the next he'll be like this overnight.

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bardock

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Rottweiler

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6 Years

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Moderate severity

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Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Urine Spotting

i work up for work in the morning and let my dog(6yr) into my side of the house for food and water before i headed out, my dog was walking normally and was acting himself. but when i got home from work he had started high stepping with is front legs and his back left leg seemed to not be moving well and when he was standing still he would sway back and fourth till the point he would trip. also he was dripping urine ( which was by far the weirdest thing he didn't even do this as a excited puppy) and my father told me that he had just thrown up prior to my arrival and he was just generally not acting himself (very frightful and shy). i instantly booked a emergency visit at the local vet and they think he may have injured his spine and the muscles causing inflammation and they gave me med and 6 laser therapy treatments. i was told by them that this was the best approach and they had gotten amazing results before. but i know a friend who is in school to become a vet and i asked him if laser therapy is even worth the money or should i save for surgery (which he recommended) instead. im just curious as to a 3rd option to break this tie breaker.

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Pixie

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Jack Russell

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4 Years

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Serious severity

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0 found helpful

pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

Serious severity

Has Symptoms

Shaking
Crying
Swaying
High Alert
Fixated
Refusal To Move Out Of Spot

My dog has been looking in the mirror as if hallucinating, then looks for me and nearly falls, then looks back at the mirror. When I get closer to get she gets super excited, I tried looking at the mirror with her and she nearly trys to claw behind me. When I sit back in my spot on the bed she sees me there but continued to stay fixated and focused on the mirror. I also saw her holding her paw out over the bed like she does when she's begging for something...but nothing is there but the floor and air. This episode last a few hours. I have had her for 4 years and I have noticed her have a few episodes like this but they are just random.

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Lassie

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Cocker Spaniel and Beagle

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11 Years

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Moderate severity

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0 found helpful

pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Trouble Moving Around
Weak Leg
Light Shaking
Falling Backwards
Tripping
Shivering
Injured Leg
Swaying Back And Forth

A couple days ago my female dog Lassie escaped from the backyard and when she came back I noticed that her left leg was weak and had trouble walking correctly for her leg angles inward. Shortly after that she has began swaying back and forth and when she is in a sitting position she starts to fall backwards. I checked her eyes and they do not move side to side and doesn't tilt her head. When laying down, she lightly shakes--like shivering-- and has trouble moving around. She is a Bocker so she is small and she's old. The symptoms of vestibular disease seem similar, but I am also afraid that it could involve something else.

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