Updated: February 7, 2022
Central vestibular disease in dogs is actually quite common, but scary when it happens. The affected dog may spin in circles or appear to have a drunken gait. Other signs of the disease include jerking eye flicks and vomiting.
Although the condition can affect dogs of any age, it tends to affect older dogs.
In this post, we’re going to talk about the two forms of vestibular disease. The most common form is called peripheral vestibular disease and the second form is known as central vestibular disease.
If this has happened to your dog, you were probably shocked. The good news is that this disease can be treated with appropriate care.
A veterinarian will establish the right treatment options for the dog. Underlying conditions will be addressed as well.
Keep reading for more information on the signs, symptoms, causes, and treatment options available for dogs.
Old Dog Disease
Canine idiopathic vestibular disease is also known as “old dog vestibular syndrome”. It affects the dog’s balance and stems from the brain, particularly within the inner ear and middle ear.
Since the disease affects balance, it makes sense that an affected dog will become dizzy and unable to walk in a straight line.
In some cases, there’s a clinical reason for the disease. However, there often isn’t any known cause which is why it’s known as “idiopathic”. Although it’s referred to as a “disease”, it’s actually a set of issues affecting the dog’s vestibular system.
Breeds Predisposed to Central Vestibular Disease
Breeds that are more predisposed to this condition include:
- Doberman pinscher
- German shepherd
- English cocker spaniel
- Smooth fox terrier
- Tibetan terrier
What is the Vestibular System?
The vestibular system maintains a dog’s normal balance. This is the same function for humans as well. The central components of the system are located in the brain.
Peripheral components are located within the inner and middle ear. This is where the two different types of vestibular disease come into play.
Central Vestibular Disease
If a dog is diagnosed with central vestibular disease, it means the affected components are coming from the brain. The signs of central vestibular disease can mimic those of peripheral vestibular disease. Luckily, it isn’t as commonly diagnosed.
Clinical signs may include:
- unusual posture
- unusual mental state
- there could be signs of facial paralysis
- slow tongue movement
- eyes twitch up and down – not side-to-side.
Peripheral Vestibular Disease
When a dog is diagnosed with peripheral vestibular disease, it means the affected components are coming from the inner or middle ear.
The peripheral vestibular system is a complex labyrinth of signals and channels within the ear. This system is responsible for keeping track of where the head is positioned at any given moment. When everything is working as it should, your dog will have perfect balance.
When something goes wrong, it can throw off the whole chain of events that keep your dog from becoming dizzy and stumbling over.
Peripheral disorders happen when there is irritation or a lesion in the nerves that send signals to the inner ear. Dogs with peripheral vestibular disease will have darting eyes in the direction of the lesion
Clinical Signs of Vestibular Disease in Dogs
This condition tends to come in suddenly, out of the blue. Your dog may appear fine one moment and then suddenly appears disoriented.
In general (whether peripheral or central) vestibular signs may include some or all of the following:
- pronounced head tilt
- irregular jerking eye movements (known as nystagmus)
- reluctant to stand up
- staggering or stumbling
- lack of coordination
- rapid eye movement when awake
- circling in one direction
- suddenly wants to sleep on hard surfaces
- may lean or fall in the direction of the head tilt
Causes of Vestibular Disease in Dogs
The causes of vestibular disease in dogs isn’t always clear. In fact, in many cases it’s said to be “idiopathic” because no cause can be found. It occurs when there is an acute inflammation of the vestibular nerve. The difficulty comes in determining what caused the inflammation in the first place.
Typically, when there’s no underlying reason, the condition improves on its own without the need for medical attention.
That said, there are some things that could cause the condition including:
Certain antibiotics including:
Trauma or Injury
Head trauma could be from a big fall, force to the head (car accident for example) or something falling on a dog’s head like a large tree limb.
Middle Ear Infection
Inflammation of the ear canal may also cause the onset of vestibular signs in dogs.
Cysts or tumors within the ear canal may trigger vestibular signs in dogs.
Sometimes, thyroid disorders can cause peripheral vestibular syndrome in dogs. This happens when there is cranial nerve involvement.
Serious Conditions Not Related to Vestibular Disease
Vestibular disease resembles a stroke in dogs. There is a possibility that what you’ve witnessed isn’t vestibular disease at all.
In some cases, the clinical signs could be related to a more serious health issue. Conditions that affect the ear include:
- deep inner ear infections (otitis)
- tumors or polyps in the ear
- trauma or damage to the skull
- brain tumor
- inflammation or infection in the brain (encephalitis)
- thiamine deficiency
- cyst in the brain
Luckily, most cases of vestibular disease in dogs are not related to a serious underlying cause. Many dogs recover on their own or with some medical intervention.
How Does The Veterinarian Diagnose Vestibular Disease in Dogs?
If the veterinarian suspects vestibular syndrome, he/she will first want to rule out other diseases that have similar symptoms.
Diagnostic testing is vital to determine a proper diagnosis.
The goal of this is to determine whether your dog is suffering from a neurological problem, what part of the nervous system is affected, whether there are underlying conditions causing the symptoms, and how serious the problem actually is.
A physical examination will help the veterinarian determine whether the problem is peripheral or central. This is important information in order to properly treat the pet.
If the veterinarian believes it is the peripheral form of vestibular disease, he/she may use an otoscope to look into the dog’s ear canal.
A complete medical history may include information about previously owned animals, whether your dog has been treated by other veterinarians (and their names). The veterinarian may also want to know if the dog has exhibited these signs in the past.
During the examination, the veterinarian will perform tests to identify vestibular disease. This could involve assessing the dog’s gait, looking into the dog’s eyes, etc.
The veterinarian may also want to know when you first noticed the problem, where the dog was when it happened, what the dog ate, whether the dog has been treated for worms, and whether there are chronic conditions involved.
Sometimes x-rays are used to help with the diagnosis. Radiographs or x-rays of the head allow the veterinarian to have a look at the middle and inner ears. It also allows them to view the tympanic bullae (the hollow, bony structure on the skull that encloses parts of the middle and inner ear).
Magnetic Resonance Imaging or Computed Tomography (CT Scan)
These might be used to determine whether there are tumors or other abnormalities.
Screening methods like blood tests can help eliminate other potential causes for the symptoms.
Cerebrospinal Fluid Analysis
You may recognize this as the more commonly described “spinal tap”. To perform this procedure, the dog is put under general anesthesia. Since the animal is asleep for the procedure, there is no pain.
During the procedure, a small amount of spinal fluid is collected. It’s then sent to the lab for analysis of protein content, white blood cell count, and the types of white blood cells present.
Spinal fluid can be collected from one of two places:
- from the space between the brain and the beginning of the spinal cord
- from the lumbosacral area near the dog’s hind end
Treating Vestibular Disease in Dogs
Although vestibular disease can be hard to witness, many dogs start to improve within 24 hours without medical intervention. The condition isn’t painful or dangerous and will likely clear up on its own.
The veterinarian may suggest or prescribe anti-nausea medication to treat nausea and vomiting. If your dog is unable to drink because of the dizziness, he/she may need some IV fluids to offset dehydration.
Ultimately, there is no big treatment plan for dogs with vestibular disease. Time and patience are the two things to take into consideration.
Things You Can Do at Home to Help Your Dog
In the day or two that it takes your dog to recover, there are some things you can do to help. Provide your dog with a comfortable place to rest, away from other animals if they are intrusive, and have easy access to food and water nearby.
Block your dog’s access to stairs and remove obstacles until your dog regains his sense of balance.
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The good news about vestibular syndrome in dogs is that it is a non-progressive disturbance of balance. It’s temporarily uncomfortable for the dog, but it won’t progress into something worse.
If this happens to your dog, it’s still important to report it to a licensed veterinarian. Even though the symptoms will likely pass quickly, you should still make an appointment so that the doctor can conduct a wellness check.