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Vestibular Disease in Dogs

by Dr. Rachel Addleman, DVM, DiplABVP, CVA
Veterinarian and Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist, Dr. Addleman has advanced training and Board Certification in feline medicine. She practices in Houston, Texas and can be found at AnimalFixer.com

Vestibular Disease in DogsMy father developed vertigo a few months ago. His world started spinning and he couldn't move off the couch. The vestibular apparatus of the inner ear is responsible for allowing you to orient yourself without feeling dizzy. Sometimes vertigo is related to an ear infection. My father didn’t have an ear infection, and neither do many older dogs that develop this same condition. Dad definitely had an old dog look about him, he was flopped on the couch trying not to move his head. I immediately diagnosed him with what veterinarians term "Old Dog Vestibular Disease".

Old Dog Vestibular Disease is common in geriatric dogs. The symptoms of vertigo come on very suddenly, usually within an hour. Dogs lose their balance and have trouble walking. They will hold their head tipped to the left or right. In the first 24-48 hours, if you look closely, you can often see their eyes shifting side to side in a typewriter-like motion. My late cocker spaniel-poodle, Suzie, developed this condition. She couldn’t stand and when she tried, she stumbled off in one direction. Suzie had the typical head tilt and her eyes shifted back and forth for the first 24 hours.

A diagnosis of Old Dog Vestibular Disease involves ruling out other diseases, especially an ear infection. Eye movement from side to side is consistent with vestibular disease. Eyes that shift up and down can mean there is a central brain lesion and is not consistent with vestibular disease. If taken, x-rays of the skull are normal. An MRI scan is not usually pursued unless the symptoms do not resolve, but scans of the inner ear suggest a possible vascular etiology. The cause of Old Dog Vestibular Disease is not known.

Treatment for this condition is largely supportive. The feeling of nausea can be overwhelming in the beginning, and dogs usually require medications to help their appetite and keep their food down. Sometimes sedatives are used to keep the patients calm.

The overall prognosis is good, as most animals improve significantly in the first week and return to normal over the course of several weeks. Some are left with some residual effects such as a head tilt or mildly abnormal gait. Suzie retained just the hint of a head tilt. It is rare that a dog experiences an episode of Old Dog Vestibular Disease twice in its life, but it happens.

Like Suzie, Dad recovered from his Old Dog Vestibular Disease. Thankfully, he does not have a head tilt.