Unsteadiness on Feet in Dogs

Written By hannah hollinger
Published: 06/16/2017Updated: 01/14/2022
Veterinary reviewed by Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS
Why is my dog unsteady on his feet?

What is Unsteadiness on 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)

Why Unsteadiness on 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 interna are infections involving the middle and inner ear – these are the most likely 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. 

Ear infections can be due to bacteria, yeast foreign bodies, polyps etc. 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 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 is idiopathic (there is 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 Unsteadiness on Feet

If you notice your dog is experiencing an 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 should always be treated by your vet so they can ensure the ear drum is intact and there are no foreign bodies or polyps present within the canal. 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 Unsteadiness on 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 sometimes be prevented by regular ear cleaning, especially in dogs with floppy ears. The earlier we treat them, the sooner they resolve. 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 Unsteadiness on 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.

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Unsteadiness on Feet Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals


Shih Tzu



Thirteen Years


0 found this helpful


0 found this helpful

My pet has the following symptoms:
My shih tzu has seemed to be acting funny. She would go to her food bowl to eat a bite and then back up suddenly and lean to the side as if she was weak. We feed her twice a day and she’s on a strict chicken and veggie diet. She’s had a history of kidney stones but we normally tell when there’s a problem because she will hardly urinate when taken out. She’s developing cataract in her eyes, she drinks well. I’m desperate for answers because I want her to be taken care of.

Sept. 25, 2020

Answered by Dr. Michele K. DVM

0 Recommendations

Thank you for your question. I apologize for the delay, this venue is not set up for urgent emails. I hope that your pet is feeling better. If they are still having problems, It would be best to have your pet seen by a veterinarian, as they can examine them, see what might be going on, and get any testing or treatment taken care of that might be needed.

Oct. 23, 2020

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minature schnauzer




6 Years


4 found this helpful


4 found this helpful

My pet has the following symptoms:
Unsteady On Feet,
Unsteady Walking, Stumbles,
My miniature schnauzer who is 6 years old, was sick 3 days ago then stopped eating and drinking. We took her to the vets and they gave her a painkiller before she went back the next day for blood tests & Xrays. He thought he could see thickening of the intestine, so started her on Parvale, Metrobactin,Buscopan. She started eating a little and drinking too.The blood results came back and he said they were pretty good, so we could transistion her back to normal food. I am so worried, because doesn't always want to get up and when she does, she seems slow to walk and sometimes she wobbles or stumbles. She can't climb the stairs or jump either. She wants to lay there and do nothing even if she isn't sleeping. She really has to be ecnouraged to walk or she will stand still and stare into space.

Aug. 4, 2018

4 Recommendations

It is possible that Etty is unsteady on her feet due to gastrointestinal pain which may be causing her reluctance to move and apparent lethargy; also Metrobactin (metronidazole) may also cause side effects including vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, lethargy among other side effects. Keep an eye on Etty and visit your Veterinarian again if there is no improvement. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

Aug. 5, 2018

Thank you for the quick reply, much appreciated. This morning she improved quite a lot and walked more steadily. She's tired again now and not wanting to walk, but the fact we saw improvement, is a good sign. She did have the Metrobactin a few hours ago, so it might have taken effect now. She has an appointment with the vet in the morning, just to be sure. Again, thankyou.

Aug. 5, 2018

Etty's Owner

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