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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. 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 
  • Idiopathic (no known reason; typically occurring in geriatrics)

To address the issue, we must treat the underlying problem e.g. an ear infection or polyp.

If your dog has idiopathic vestibular disease, remember that this type of 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 (nystagmus)
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Tumbling or falling in the direction of the head tilt
  • Reduced appetite
  • Reluctance to move

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 is often treatable.

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. Strokes are less common than most owners assume. 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. Idiopathic 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 promptly 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 have them examined by their vet. Often times, problems such as Idiopathic Vestibular disease will resolve in a few days, without any assistance from medication. However, many will need supportive care during this time.

 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 better. 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. Use tick prevention medicine. 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

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Ask a Vet

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Pit Bull mix

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Eight Years

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Unknown severity

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0 found helpful

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Unknown severity

Has Symptoms

Head Shaking

My dog wont eat and barely drinks, I got her to finally eat a little bit today and she took a nap and when she woke up she's been acting funny like she's drunk and her head is all wobbly and she's bobbing it. And she's not walking right

Sept. 29, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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Thank you for your question. As dogs age, different things can happen, and sometimes things can affect their vestibular system so that they cannot get their balance. It would be best to have your dog seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible, as they can examine her and see what might be causing this problem. Once they know more, they will be able to let you know what treatment might be needed, and give you an idea as to whether she will be okay. I hope that all goes well for her.

Oct. 1, 2020

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Maltese

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Three Years

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Unknown severity

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0 found helpful

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Unknown severity

Has Symptoms

Swaying Licking Lips

What can I do to help?

Sept. 28, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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0 Recommendations

Thank you for your question. Unfortunately, without knowing more about your dog, I'm not sure what might be causing the signs that you describe, but it seems a good idea to have her seen by a veterinarian. Whether she is nauseous, or ate a toxin, or has another problem, they will be able to examine her and see what might be going on, and get treatment for her if needed. I hope that she is okay!

Oct. 5, 2020

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