Old Dog Vestibular Disease can be triggered by a number of things including inner ear problems, a collar related injury, a brain injury or tumor or a central nervous system dysfunction.
However, often there is no clear trigger or underlying issue to be found and the condition arises spontaneously…. and usually resolves itself in the same way.
‘Vestibular’ basically means ‘the perception of body movement and balance’. The ‘Old Dog’ part of the equation is there because this is most often seen in dogs who are seven years or older. ‘Disease’ sounds scary, but this is almost always a fairly benign illness and it is not contagious.
It affects the nerves that co-ordinate the messages between a dog’s eyes, inner-ear, and body – you could say it scrambles them to some degree.
In a nutshell, Old Dog Vestibular Disease affects your dog’s balance.
Now being able to balance is a pretty fundamental ability, so losing it makes life very difficult, and the symptoms can look pretty scary – and must feel awful for Fido.
If you’ve ever suffered from a bout of vertigo yourself (or even been really, really, drunk!) you’ll have some idea of how he’s feeling! Luckily this problem is generally not nearly as serious as it looks, and most dogs make a full recovery, with little to no treatment.
This condition is also known as… ‘Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome‘, ‘Idiopathic’ (meaning ‘of no known origin) Old Dog Vestibular Disease‘ ‘Peripheral Vestibular Disease‘ or even (incorrectly) ‘Old Dog Syndrome‘.
Here’s what you need to know…
Symptoms Of Old Dog Vestibular Disease
You can check out the symptoms of dog stroke, and the differences between a stroke and vestibular disease here: Is My Dog Having A Stroke? The signs of Old Dog Vestibular Disease come on very suddenly and are dramatic.
This means that it’s easy to panic and think that your dog has had a stroke or has brain damage. Luckily the odds of either of these happening are much lower.
Symptoms of Peripheral Vestibular Disease in dogs include:
- Loss of balance – stumbling, staggering, circling, falling down, rolling around
- Head tilt – head is held oddly, usually tilted at an angle of about 45°
- Erratic eye movements – horizontal, back & forth movement (may roll too)
- Nausea and/or vomiting
Your dog may not have all these symptoms but he’s likely to have at least two of them.
Loss of balance and nystagmus (the unusual eye-movements) are the most common. However, the nystagmus often quickly resolves, and can also be easily overlooked due to confusion with excessive blinking.
There is another form of this condition called Central Vestibular Disease. This is when the brainstem part of the brain is directly affected, rather than the inner ear or nerves that go to that region.
It is more serious, is not included in the more common peripheral or Old Dog Vestibular Disease and shows slightly different symptoms.
The causes of the central type of this disease are also more serious and may include:
WATCH: 3 Important Tips To Care For an Old Dog [VET VIDEO]
- Brain damage or trauma
- Brain tumor
- Systemic infection or inflammation of the brain
- Fungal infection of the brain
- Tick-borne illnesses such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Symptoms are similar but the nystagmus (eye movements) may not be exclusively horizontal as they are with the peripheral form of vestibular disease in dogs.
These eye movements may change when your dog’s head position changes, may be vertical, horizontal, rolling or erratic.
Only a veterinarian can distinguish between the two by running certain tests.
Here’s a video that shows you what vestibular disease symptoms look like……
Causes Of Old Dog Vestibular Disease
Old Dog Vestibular Disease can show up out of the blue for no apparent reason.
Vestibular disease isn’t solely a condition which affects only senior dogs, but it is most often seen in dogs who are middle aged, or older.
While it is often idiopathic, meaning it occurs for no known cause, sometimes your vet can find a reason behind the symptoms.
Causes of canine peripheral vestibular disease may include:
- Ear infection or inflammation
- Perforated tympanic membrane (also known as the ear drum)
- Viral infection
- Reaction to a medication
- Injury to neck caused by collar, a fall, or some other incident.
Only a veterinarian can make a diagnosis and after the initial exam he/she will be able to tell you whether there are more tests that Fido needs.
Treating Peripheral Vestibular Disease In Dogs
The peripheral form of Old Dog Vestibular Disease is often a self-limiting condition – this means that it improves with no intervention if given time.
Most dogs will start to improve and symptoms will ease off within 2 to 3 days, and will be totally recovered within two to four weeks. More severe cases may take up to six weeks to be fully recovered.
BUT this doesn’t mean that you don’t need to have Fido examined by a veterinarian – you do!
Although chances are good that your dog has the peripheral form of the disease, there are other possibilities including Central Vestibular Disease.
Only a licensed veterinarian can make an accurate diagnosis.
While the treatment depends on the cause, there are also some things you can do to help Fido cope with the difficulties he’s experiencing.
Symptoms of Old Dog Vestibular Disease such as nausea and vomiting can be reduced or controlled by medications prescribed by your vet (sort of like the meds you take for motion-sickness).
Anti-nausea drugs may be prescribed or recommended by your vet and these can make your dog feel more comfortable. Anti-inflammatory medications or antibiotics may be prescribed if your senior dog shows any signs of an ear infection or problem.
Sometimes corticosteroids can really help reduce the symptoms of vestibular disease if it is caused by inflammation or swelling in the ear, or elsewhere.
Obviously, if the examination shows any signs that there’s something more serious going on, then other treatment options for the underlying issue will be needed.
For dogs with simple idiopathic vestibular disease, the rest of the treatment is just ‘supportive care’.
That means helping Fido to manage his day-to-day life which is tricky when he can’t balance his body properly and his eyes have trouble focusing.
Helping Your Dog With Vestibular Disease
Here’s what you can do to make your dog’s life easier:
Keep Him Quiet & Rested As Much As Possible
Staggering and stumbling around is scary for your dog, so try to minimize the space he has to move about.
If Fido is used to being crated and is comfy there, this can really help and you can use the crate more than you normally would.
But for older dogs who don’t use a crate, now isn’t the time to start. Instead try to confine him to a smaller area, or to one room at a time.
Help Him To Walk, Eat, Drink & Potty
When he needs to go outdoors to pee/poop, go with your dog and help him to stay upright and find the right spot.
An older dog could really hurt himself, if he falls down steps or onto a hard surface or walks into a wall, fence or tree.
Protect him from himself until his balance comes back.
Sometimes using doggie diapers or belly bands can be helpful (especially at night) because a dog who is dizzy and sick often doesn’t notice or respond to the body’s potty cues quickly enough.
But, don’t rely on a belly band or diapers. Make the effort to get your dog to his/her potty spot regularly and encourage normal potty habits whenever possible.
How to Feed a Dog with Vestibular Disease
Often dogs with vestibular disease don’t want to eat because they feel sick. Anti-nausea medicines prescribed by your veterinarian can help with this.
Also, it can be tricky for Fido to eat even if he wants to, because his eyes flicker and move involuntarily and make it difficult for him to focus. Some dogs pretty much refuse to eat, or the physical symptoms make it very difficult for them to do so. This stage generally only lasts a few days.
In addition to swaying from side to side and generally struggling to keep their head focused on the food bowl, dogs with vestibular disease often don’t want to eat because they feel sick. Anti-nausea medicines prescribed by your veterinarian can help with this. Here is a list of changes you can make to make the act of eating as simple as possible for your dog:
- Make His Meals More Appealing: Make his meals more appealing by adding tasty gravy, or a little canned food, to his kibble and encourage him to eat while lying down if he’ll co-operate.
- Use Supplements: to make sure that Fido gets some nutrition during this stage you can try liquid nutritional supplements such as PetAG’s Dyne liquid supplements or Tomlyn’s Nutrical Nutritional Gel, as featured in the two listings below:
- Make it Easier for Them to Drink and Eat: drinking poses the same problems, but your dog MUST drink or he’ll get dehydrated, so the same help is needed here. Pedialyte contains vital electrolytes so try to give your old boy or girl a little of the unflavored variety as well as water if you can.
- Use Omega 3 to Reduce the Chances of Further Episodes
- Medication from the Vet That May Help
Learn more these 5 tips in more details by reading our article on how to feed a dog with vestibular disease.
If your senior dog still won’t/can’t drink, then discuss it with your vet – he might want to give Fido some IV fluids to make sure he stays hydrated.
Monitor His Progress & Recovery
The majority of dogs will show signs of improvement within about 72 hours, and be fully recovered within 2 weeks.
But, if your old dog doesn’t seem to be any better after a couple of days, or he gets worse or shows other symptoms, get him back to your vet asap.
The majority of dogs will be fully recovered from a bout of old dog vestibular disease within about 2 weeks.
Usually all symptoms will have faded away, although sometimes the head-tilt or a little loss of co-ordination will linger.
It’s rarely enough to cause any real problems and shouldn’t impact your senior dog’s quality of life.
Once a dog has suffered one go-around with this problem, he has an above-average risk of having another. New episodes are usually similar to the first one in both severity and duration.
Although this isn’t ideal, the good news is that IF Fido has another ‘episode’, you’ll know what it is right away and won’t feel so panicked.
Plus you’ll be able to get him any medications he needs, and know how to help him through those first, difficult, days.
Reducing the chances of further episodes…
Although there are no treatments that are guaranteed to prevent further episodes of old dog vestibular disease, there are a few things you can do to help Fido heal completely and possibly reduce the chances of experiencing the whole thing again. These include:
Giving an Omega 3 EPA & DHA Fish Oil will help your dog’s body to heal and regenerate to its full potential. We recommend the following from Ascenta:
- The Pure Check logo guarantees that this product has been independently tested and certified for quality , purity and label claims
Give a premium vitamin/mineral supplement daily to make sure all body systems have the nutrients they need to function properly. A few examples of these supplements are featured below:
Premium vitamin or mineral supplements on Amazon:
Collar related injuries can cause vestibular problems, and an accidental pull or jerk could trigger an episode. So… it’s best to use a harness rather than a collar when walking your dog if they’ve had vestibular disease previously.
Complementary health practices such physiotherapy and acupuncture can all have benefits after the initial recovery period.
Allergies can cause chronic ear infections in dogs which can lead to vestibular episodes. Your vet can help you decide if this might be a problem for your senior dog.
Take things slowly and allow your dog to return to normal activities at their own pace.
Is My Dog Having A Stroke?
The symptoms of vestibular disease are often mistaken for a stroke by panicked dog owners.
This isn’t surprising as they can be quite similar and although the odds are in favor of vestibular problems rather than brain issues, a dog can have a stroke.
Here is a quick look at what occurs when a dog has a stroke, and what makes it different from vestibular problems.
A stroke is the result of either:
- A blood clot – called an Ischemic Stroke/Attack
- A hemorrhage in the brain – called a Hemorrhagic Stroke
A clot, or bleed, can be caused by a range of health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, thyroid problems, injury, inflammation, blood clotting disease and more.
Ear problems in dogs are not a trigger for stroke.
Advanced age can also be the cause of a dog experiencing a stroke.
The symptoms of a stroke in dogs have some similarities to symptoms of vestibular disease, but there are some subtle differences.
Symptoms of Stroke in Dogs
These symptoms are similar to those seen in a vestibular episode, but the unusual eye movements are not exclusively horizontal.
- Loss of co-ordination
- Stumbling or falling over
- Head tilt
- Abnormal eye movements (may move vertically/horizontally/roll)
These symptoms are not likely to be seen in dogs with vestibular disease:
- Abnormal eye position (eyes not co-ordinated)
- Loss of vision
- Loss of hearing
- Excessive Drooling
- Loss of consciousness
A Transient Isechemic Stroke (TIA)
A TIA is a sort of ‘mini-stroke’ and usually happens when blood supply to the brain is decreased due to a blood clot which forms and then either breaks up or moves on.
Once a dog has had one Transient Ischemic Stroke the chance of his having subsequent ones increases. Sometimes a full-blown stroke will occur at a later date.
The symptoms of a TIA could resemble those of vestibular disease and/or a full stroke.
However, a Transient Ischemic Stroke is usually short-lived, normally lasting for thirty minutes to a couple of hours.
The symptoms of a TIA come on very quickly and subside very quickly too.
With Old Dog Vestibular Disease, the symptoms generally resolve over a period of days, taking up to two weeks for a dog to return to normal.
With a full stroke, symptoms can take weeks or months to lessen, and treatment is required to get to that point. Unfortunately, sometimes they can be fatal or leave long-lasting effects.
Duration of symptoms and degree/speed of recovery is important for diagnosis.
But… ONLY your vet can make an accurate assessment/diagnosis and this is critical to making sure your golden oldie gets the right help and the best chances of making a full recovery.
Any dog experiencing the symptoms on this page (to whatever degree) needs to be examined by a vet as soon as possible.
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