Symptoms Of Vestibular Disease In Dogs: A Helpful Guide For Pet Parents

Most humans have experienced a sudden dizzy spell, which can come on as mildly as a little disorientation, or quite severely, as if the ground is tilting. Barring obvious external causes such as medication or alcohol, these issues usually stem from a problem in the inner ear, where the sense of balance aligns itself. Surprisingly delicate for its level of importance, this area can send the whole body into a state of vertigo if out of balance.

In dogs, the same problem can occur on a larger scale, particularly as they grow older. This condition, called vestibular disease after the portion of the ear it affects, is an alarming one for pet parents. One moment, their dog is moving, alert, and acting normally, and the next, he’s stumbling erratically or even refusing to stand up from the floor after falling down. This state of canine vertigo can be especially hard to watch for concerned pet parents.

What Is Canine Vestibular Disease?

Just like their human owners, dogs’ vestibular systems are a combination of the entryway to the inner ear (the vestibule, from the word for hallway) and the brain. Both work together as a system in order to orient the body and maintain balance through movement. While most lists of the “five senses” stop after sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste, the truth is that several other often-overlooked senses – including acceleration and balance – rely on this system. For dogs, this system is a very important one, as they rely on it to maintain the correct rhythm for their paws while walking. A malfunctioning canine vestibular system results in a dog that can no longer maintain his balance or position with accuracy. 

Vestibular disease in older dogs is often called, unsurprisingly, “Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome,” as this issue becomes more common in geriatric pooches. While some cases are caused by an external issue, such as medication, illness, or physical trauma, in older dogs it is often idiopathic, meaning spontaneous and without reason. For a concerned pet owner watching a beloved pup stumble, this out-of-nowhere syndrome can be as disorienting emotionally as it is physically for their canine companion. 

Signs & Symptoms Of Canine Vestibular Disease in Dogs: What To Recognize

Many of the more alarming effects of vestibular disease can mimic those of more serious diseases, so it’s important that dog owners stay calm and patient if symptoms arise. If a dog shows any of these behaviors, he may be afflicted with canine vestibular disease: 

  • Stumbling on a flat or otherwise easy-to-navigate surface
  • “Drunk” movements that are slow and clumsy for no reason
  • A prolonged head tilt that is not an automatic response to a nearby noise
  • Eye jittering or quick, jerky movements of the eyes when trying to focus

Vestibular syndrome is rapid-onset, so time is another important factor in determining if a dog is afflicted. Symptoms will not show up gradually over several days or weeks; instead, they will appear between one day and the next, or even over the space of hours.

Vestibular Disease In Dogs: Ruling Out Potential Causes

When a dog has any physical signs of distress, the best course of action is always to take him to a vet or other animal care specialist as soon as possible. Valuable diagnosis time can be saved, however, by ruling out some of the more common triggers for vestibular syndrome symptoms:

  • Has he eaten, or had access to, any unfamiliar substances in the last 24 hours? These may include cleaning products, unsafe edibles (e.g. chocolate, grapes, etc.), new houseplants that are poisonous to dogs, health and beauty care items like perfumes, and so on. The symptoms may be triggered by a canine allergic reaction
  • Has he traveled through or spent time in unfamiliar surroundings? The outdoors hold a lot of intriguing exploration opportunities for a curious canine, but there are also ticks, snakes, wasps, mushrooms, and other potentially poisonous plants and animals. If the dog was kept indoors in an unfamiliar home, the dog-sitter or family member might not have known to put harmful items like human medications out of reach.
  • Has he had any injuries through accidents in the past 24 hours? A quick tumble off of a deck, or a misfire when playing catch with a hard ball might seem like a harmless bump to an enthusiastic dog. However, just like humans, concussions and head injuries might not show symptoms for several hours, if at all. Additionally, dogs are essentially genetically programmed to hide minor injuries to avoid becoming prey to larger predators in the wild. A dog relies on his owner to notice unusual behaviors that may hint at deeper injuries and wounds.
  • Has he had any other uncharacteristic symptoms recently? Obvious, highly visible symptoms like stumbling, falling over, and head-tilting are easy to spot, but they may not tell the whole story. Other symptoms, even minor ones that would otherwise be brushed off, may tell a more complete medical story for more accurate vet diagnosis.

While a vet may have several other questions to ask to help rule out (or confirm) their diagnosis, these five basic answers will help a great deal. Writing down the symptoms and when they started (as opposed to trying to remember and relay at the vet office) may also help. 

How Is Canine Vestibular Disease Treated?

If a veterinary office suspects that vestibular issues or old dog vestibular syndrome may be to blame for a dog’s symptoms, they’ll first take his history from his owner. From there, the vet will perform a physical examination on him, looking for particular ‘tells’, such as an irritated or inflamed ear canal, or run bloodwork/biological tests that confirm the presence of an infection or bacteria. Most dog ears are, thankfully, considerably larger than humans’ ears and therefore physical issues are much easier to spot. 

During examination, it’s natural and normal for dogs to be a little distressed; if their ear is causing the issue, it’s instinctive to protect it and keep it shielded from anything trying to touch it. If a dog is resisting examination, his owner should talk to him in a low, soothing voice, and rhythmically pet his body to help calm him down. He will be much more familiar and comfortable with his owner, so it’s essential that the owner and the vet work as a team to diagnose and treat his condition. 

If no obvious outward signs are visible in the ear, the vet may order additional tests, such as a magnetic resonance image, or MRI, to rule out brain disorder issues. This is particularly true if the vestibular effects don’t remedy themselves in a few weeks; that lingering could point to a more serious health issue that needs to be pinpointed and addressed. 

As the diagnosis moves forward, the vet may also recommend supportive therapies to help with the symptoms of vestibular or vestibular-mimicking canine ailments. If a dog cannot stay upright or maintain his head position, he’ll have difficulty with everyday tasks like drinking water from a bowl or eating his food, even if he’s very hungry or thirsty. He may be put on intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration or malnutrition, and may need to spend a few days at an animal care facility for monitoring. 

If there is no infection or bacterial cause, the main treatment for vestibular syndrome is a simple, age-old one: time. Most vestibular syndrome appearances in dogs tend to clear themselves up in anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, which is inevitably a relief for owners. While the recurrence likelihood will vary from dog to dog based on his health, it’s not uncommon for dogs afflicted with vestibular symptoms to experience them periodically, particularly if they’re older. This isn’t the fault of the owner, diet, too little or too much exercise, or any other controllable factor: it’s simply a reality for older dogs, and the best thing owners can do is treat the symptoms as directed by their vet.

Is Vestibular Disease In Dogs Contagious?

In multi-dog households, an owner’s first concern after treating “the patient” is typically the safety of their other pets. Since environmental factors such as poisonous plants or bacteria can quite easily infect multiple animals at once, it’s natural (and smart) for pet parents to be cautious. The good news is that traditional vestibular disease and old dog vestibular disease are isolated to the animal they effect. That means that an affected dog – once he gets the green light from the vet, of course – is safe to eat, sleep, and play with his canine siblings.

However, if a dog is struggling to stay on his paws or is nauseous due to head tilt, it might be prudent to keep him isolated or partially isolated as he recovers. Other pets don’t always understand why another dog is vomiting, eating or drinking less, or exhibiting a reduction in energy, so they may play too roughly with him. While “pack” visits and quiet time together could benefit his sense of well-being, his owner should make sure these companion times ar