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Vestibular Disease: Causes, Symptoms, and How to Spot the Signs in Your Dog

Vestibular syndrome, also called idiopathic vestibular disease or old dog syndrome, is a confusing-sounding medical term that describes a condition that can be just as confusing when your dog is experiencing it. 

The frightening symptoms of old dog vestibular disease can appear out of nowhere. If your dog is wobbly and disoriented suddenly, they may have developed this mysterious syndrome.

Vestibular syndrome can be caused by a few different underlying issues or have no cause at all. Although your dog won’t die from vestibular problems, the incredible dizziness it causes dramatically affects their ability to walk, eat, and chase after the neighborhood squirrels - it can, understandably, be a very upsetting and confusing experience for them. 

Learn below about the vestibular system, causes of dysfunction, and how it can be diagnosed and treated by a vet. We’ve also got some ways you can help your little one out while they’re healing and recovering.

The vestibular system 

All mammals have a vestibular system, including humans and dogs. It’s located in the inner ear and connects to its central components within the brain. 

The vestibular system works between a dog’s ears and its eyes to help them feel their heads' spatial sense and maintain balance while standing and moving.

What is vestibular syndrome?

Idiopathic vestibular disease is a sudden onset of disturbance of balance within the body. Your dog will get dizzy, won’t know which way is up, get confused, and lose balance because of the disease. 

Vestibular syndrome can be a pretty traumatizing experience for a dog who can’t understand what’s wrong, and an owner who watches their dog having some pretty alarming symptoms.

A dog with idiopathic vestibular syndrome will exhibit some or all of these signs:

  • Weakness, lack of coordination in movement, involuntary muscle spasms;
  • Reluctance to stand or walk
  • Motion sickness (nausea and vomiting)
  • Rapid, jerking eye movements or twitching
  • Head tilting
  • Falling over, especially if favoring one side
  • Difficulty controlling face and head nerves

If your dog is experiencing any or many of these symptoms, take them to your vet ASAP for a professional diagnosis. 

Causes of vestibular disease

Vestibular disease can have a variety of causes, mostly related to ear injuries. Some causes are:

  • Infection of the middle or inner ear
  • Toxic drugs
  • Damage or trauma to the ear
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Tumors

How long does vestibular disease last?

The symptoms of vestibular disease are usually the worst in the first 24-48 hours, with most dogs beginning to improve about 3 days after the early signs start to show. 

Stumbling and head tilt takes a bit longer to recover at 7-10 days, and a dog usually fully recovers in 2-3 weeks. Some dogs have mild issues with head wobbling in the months and years after recovery.

You’ll need the professional knowledge of a veterinarian to diagnose and treat the heart of the issue, but you can help your dog feel more comfortable through the stressful recovery period. 

To help your dog feel at ease, you can give them:

  • Anti-nausea pills.These can help get your pup over the hump of the first few days of nausea and prevent vomiting, unwanted by both of you.
  • An adjustable dog ramp. Help your dog get up and down off of your bed and couches comfortably by using a ramp while they’re struggling with their mobility. 
  • IV fluids from the vet. Your dog may need these if he can’t walk himself over to the water bowl to drink regularly. 
  • Pillows and soft beds.The dog will be in a lot of discomfort, so try to make their surroundings as comfortable as possible. Bring their food and water dishes close by so they can try to drink and eat without too much movement.
  • Emotional support.Lots of petting and cuddling will help them feel comforted during this stressful time. 
  • Gentle exercise.Pay attention to the dog’s cues - you want to try to get them moving slowly, but don’t push them too hard until they’ve improved to more mild symptoms. 

Is vestibular disease in dogs painful?

Vestibular disease doesn’t cause any actual pain to the dog. It can cause discomfort, nausea, and vomiting because of the dizziness involved. 

It can also cause the pup some emotional distress since they cannot understand what is happening to them or why, especially with a very sudden onset of symptoms. 

Vestibular syndrome treatments

With idiopathic vestibular disease, there is no cause to be found. In this case, a vet will wait and hope that all symptoms improve in their own time. This type is commonly found in older dogs, hence the name ‘old dog disease.’

For other forms of vestibular disease, you must treat the cause to treat the symptoms. 

But how can you find the cause? 

Luckily technology is pretty advanced today, and there are many testing options available through your vet to find the root cause of the vestibular issue. 

Medical history and symptoms get assessed first. Then, they take blood and urine samples for testing. If the diagnosis is still unclear, they can:

  • Measure blood pressure
  • X-ray the ear for signs of damage
  • Scan the brain for tumors or abnormalities using MRI and CT scans

For vestibular disease caused by ear infections, a course of antibiotics gets administered to the dog. 

If hypothyroidism is the cause, regular medication is prescribed to help the dog’s thyroid function properly. 

For a tumor, it may be removed through surgery, depending on the size and location.

And if the cause was injury or trauma, the problem will likely resolve itself once the injury heals. 

Prevention

Recurring vestibular disease isn’t super common, but you can still play it safe by keeping the potential causes in check. 

Take your pup to the vet for a physical examination yearly, clean your dog’s ears regularly to avoid ear infection, and maintain thyroid medication year-round when required.

Final words on vestibular disease in dogs

Although seeing a pet experience vestibular syndrome can be scary, it’s not the worst prognosis you can get. 

It’s readily treatable and, in many cases, will clear up on its own. Focus on keeping your dog comfortable and calm with lots of rest and cuddles while you wait to hear the next steps for treatment from the vet. 

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