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What is Unsteady on His Feet?

You notice your normally happy dog acting as if he is “drunk.” He may be weaving or circling. He may scratch excessively at his ears. You may begin to notice seizures or odd changes in behavior. These behaviors can be troubling in dogs at any age and should be observed by a vet; however, if your dog is older, these symptoms could be indicative of the following health issues:

  • Vestibular syndrome
  • Ear infection 
  • Stroke
  • Brain tumor
  • Inflammation of the brain (encephalitis)

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Why Unsteady on His Feet Occurs in Dogs

Vestibular Syndrome

The vestibular system helps maintain balance. It has several components in both the brain and in the ear, particularly the inner ear – an area of the ear that has a great deal of influence on balance. Vestibular syndrome is a term given to a sudden disturbance of balance; it often affects older dogs primarily. Because of this, vestibular syndrome is often referred to as “old dog” disease. Vestibular disease can be caused by a number of factors: ear infections, ear trauma/injury, tumors of the ear, or hypothyroidism. Any dog breed or gender can be affected by vestibular disease. 

Ear Infection

If you notice your dog suddenly weaving or circling and you also observe excessive ear scratching, your dog could possibly be experiencing an ear infection. There are three kinds of ear infections in dogs – otitis externa, media, and internal. Each affects a different part of the ear. Basset Hounds and Cocker Spaniels are especially prone to ear infections due to their floppy ears. 

Otitis externa is characterized by inflammation of the cells lining the outer portion of the ear canal. It is the most common type of ear infection in canines. You may notice a loss of balance in your dog accompanied by head shaking and odor. If you notice these symptoms, it is best to get your dog to the vet for proper testing and medication. 

Otitis media and internal are infections involving the middle and inner ear – these are most likely the infections to cause your dog’s balance to be off. Left untreated, middle and inner ear infections can cause deafness, facial paralysis, and vestibular disease. It is imperative to see your vet for proper testing and medication. 

It should be stressed here that some ear infections are the result of ear mites, which leave a distinctive “coffee ground” debris behind. If you notice your dog tilting his head, unbalanced, whining when scratching at his ears, then get him to the vet for proper treatment. 


Strokes can occur in dogs, especially those who are middle-aged or older dogs. Known as “cerebrovascular accident,” strokes occur when blood supply to the brain is suddenly disrupted or no longer occurring. Dogs suffering a stroke may lose their balance and circle or “weave” as if drunk, lose bladder or bowel control, tilt their heads, become aggressive, or begin having seizures. Brachycephalic dogs, Greyhounds, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and miniature Schnauzers are often more prone to strokes than other breeds. You should see your vet immediately if you believe your dog could be having a stroke. Your vet will need to determine the type of stroke your dog is experiencing and the underlying cause of the stroke. 

Brain Tumor

Typically found in older dogs, brain tumors usually have progressive symptoms. These symptoms will vary depending on the size and location of the tumor. Some symptoms can present suddenly, for example, some older dogs that previously had no health issues may begin having seizures. Some tumors cause behavioral changes in dogs; others may experience weakness on one side of the body. Still, others cause head tremors and unsteady gait. These symptoms may come and go or come on suddenly, so it’s best to see your vet if you notice one or more of these signs, even if they seem to get better. 

Inflammation of the Brain (Encephalitis)

Usually the result of an infection, encephalitis symptoms usually present suddenly and continue to worsen. German Shorthaired Pointers, Maltese, and Yorkshire Terriers are predisposed to inflammation of the brain. Encephalitis can be caused by tick-borne infections or a fungal infection known as valley fever (this is usually local to the Southwestern United States). Rarely, encephalitis has an idiopathic cause (no apparent reason for the inflammation). In this case, it is assumed that the brain and spinal cord are under attack by the immune system. Middle-aged small breed dogs are most likely to experience this type of encephalitis. Another form of idiopathic inflammation is called necrotizing meningoencephalitis (NME). Middle-aged Pugs, Maltese, Chihuahuas, Papillons, Shih Tzus, and Boston Terriers are prone to this type of encephalitis. Suspected encephalitis should always be checked by your vet.

What to do if your Dog is Unsteady on His Feet

If you notice your dog is experiencing unsteady gait with or without any of the aforementioned symptoms, it is always best to see your vet so he can rule out any serious issues. An ear infection, especially one caused by ear mites, should always be treated by your vet (while over-the-counter medication does exist for treating mites, your vet will have more effective medicine; ear mites are highly infectious and should be treated consistently to ensure that there is no re-infestation of mites). Strokes and brain tumors can be fatal, so get your dog to the vet immediately for testing and treatment.  Your vet may order a spinal tap to test for encephalitis and x-rays or an MRI to check for bleeding on the brain or tumors.

Prevention of Unsteady on His Feet

Ear mites are highly contagious, so treatment is a must if you have other pets. Continue treatment until all medications are taken even if your dog seems to feel better. Ear infections caused by other problems can be prevented by regular ear cleaning, especially in dogs with floppy ears. Regular wellness checks for your pet may allow for the early discovery of an impending condition; annual blood tests and evaluation of the feces and urine can indicate your dog’s overall health condition.

Cost of Unsteady on His Feet

Treating vestibular disease in dogs can be expensive with average treatment ranging from $300 to $2,000. The national average for treating stroke in dogs is $400.

Unsteady on His Feet Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

Jack Russell Terrier
16 Years
Moderate condition
0 found helpful
Moderate condition

We came downstairs at 2:30 am about a week ago and found our dog having a seizure. We reassured her through it and stayed up for the rest of the night to watch over her. This was her first seizure. We rang the vets and they said to keep an eye on her and there was nothing that they could do at this time. However she is now beginning to walk funny and keeps collapsing and falling to her right side. Her back legs looks like they are crossing when she walks. She does not seem to be in any pain. We have noticed a lump on her back just below her neckline. She is eating and drinking well. She has had a few accidents since the seizure with weeing in the house. She is not showing any signs of an ear infection. We think the lump on her back is causing her to loose her balance as pressing in her spine. Any help would be appreciated. We are going to take her to the vets anyway

Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
2159 Recommendations
The crossing of the hind legs whilst walking is an indicator of a phenomenon called spinal walking (there are other names for it) where are paralysed dog (or dogs with spinal cord compression) can still walk due to spinal reflexes; without examining Daisy I cannot say for sure but discuss Daisy’s condition with your Veterinarian. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

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14 Years
Serious condition
0 found helpful
Serious condition

Has Symptoms

Flapping ears

My 14 year old greyhound has been flapping her ears for months. The vet has examined them and they looked ok. A slide was checked under a microscope but showed nothing. I was given a solution to put in her ears for a few days then returned to have the ears cleaned. One ear was terribly painful for her to clean. She left the vet and upon arriving home, she was completely unable to walk without stumbling and also could not jump out of the car. She is now not eating as well, quiet, and pacing around a lot. She flaps her ears like it’s bothering her. After a few days, her steadiness has not improved. She has been on Clindamycin for around 6 weeks for a swollen lymph node in her neck which disappeared. Clindamycin is ongoing. She has dental disease and only 10 teeth left. She is an old dog with many issues including Stage 2 kidney disease. Despite all this, she was doing well until her ears were cleaned. She is now suddenly unable to walk, not eating well, not active and pacing.

Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
2159 Recommendations
There are a few reasons why Bundy is having trouble walking which may include ear infection, trauma to the ear canal, trauma to the eardrum, perforated eardrum among other conditions; I would return to your Veterinarian for an examination possibly under sedation to get a good look in side. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

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Jack Russell Terrier
Serious condition
0 found helpful
Serious condition

My 19 year old Jack Russell terrier is wobbly. Wincing to noise.Doesn’t want you to touch her head. Cringes to sound. Had an episode like this before two months ago. Slept It off. She had an episode again two days ago. Very lethargic and uncomfortable. Wobbly. Whimpering throughout the night. Trying, but unable to standup. Jerky, disoriented,. Woke up the next day just fine. A milder wobbliness today.

Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
2159 Recommendations
Given Pookie’s age, I would be tempted to put this down to getting old; but also because of her age I would recommend to be on the side of caution and visit your Veterinarian for an examination and blood tests (to check liver, kidney and blood counts). Vestibular problems, liver disease and other issues may affect an older dog; without examining Pookie, I cannot say what the cause is. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

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