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A Guide to Vestibular Disease in Dogs

Vestibular disease in dogs is a common occurrence, but a scary situation when you don’t know what’s happening. The condition, also known as Old Dog Disease, tends to happen out-of-the-blue.

Your dog will spin in circles, his/her eyes will dart back-and-forth, or up-and-down, and will appear to be in a drunken state. 

Most people tend to think the worst, but there’s a good chance it’s a benign inner-ear problem.

Read on…I want to show you the symptoms, signs, variations, and treatment options for vestibular disorders in dogs.

Does Vestibular Disease in Dogs Have to do With Their Ears?

Yes. Vestibular disease in dogs is related to the inner ear canal. There can be a clinical reason for the condition, but oftentimes it’s labelled as “idiopathic”, meaning no clinical reason could be found.

We refer to it as a “disease”, but it’s really a set of issues affecting the dog’s vestibular system.

Symptoms of Vestibular Disease in Dogs.

  • Tipped head to the side. 
  • Wobbling around in a dizzy state.
  • Vomiting
  • Circling 
  • Nystagmus (darting eyes) In this case, the dog’s eyes might be rolling, horizontal, or vertical.

What if it’s NOT Vestibular Disease?

There is a possibility that it could be something more serious, which is why you should always bring your dog to the veterinarian when he/she is experiencing symptoms like the ones listed above.


  • Tipped head to the side:

This could be caused by an ear infection.

  • Wobbling around in a dizzy state:

There could be any number of reasons for this including possible poisoning, stroke, head trauma, tumor, and encephalitis. 

  • Vomiting:

It’s not unusual for dogs to vomit, especially if they’ve eaten too fast or nabbed some old food from the compost. If the vomiting doesn’t match the circumstances, it could be a sign of poisoning (chocolate, toxic plants), parasitic infection, bowel obstruction, upset stomach, or motion sickness.

  • Circling:

You’ve probably seen your dog chase his/her tail, spinning around at the same time.  The kind of circling we’re talking about here is different.  In the case of vestibular syndrome, it will occur suddenly. It might also be a sign of a tumor, onset of stroke, or head trauma/cognitive dysfunction.

  • Nystagmus:

Nystagmus, or darting eyes, is a common symptom of vestibular disease. The darting eyes are an involuntary action that might be cause by an middle ear infection or a ruptured ear drum, head trauma, cancer, hypothyroidism, encephalitis.

This video was taken from Twitter. The kind owner of this dog wants to help inform others about the issue of vestibular disease in dogs.


Gently lift one of your dog’s front paws and flip it over so that the pads are face-up. If your dog flips his own paw back to normal without assistance, there’s a good chance your dog isn’t having a stroke.

IMPORTANT: The tip above should ease your worries a bit, but it’s still not a substitution for a veterinarian check-up.

Tell the veterinarian that you tried this test and give him/her the results. If some time has passed since you last tried it, the veterinarian may want to try it for verification.



Three-fourths of vestibular disorders in people are considered peripherally based. The most common disorder for people is benign paroxysmal positional vertigo.  This type of disorder involves the middle and inner ear.

I have benign paroxysmal positional vertigo and when it flares up, it feels as if the whole world tips upside down whenever I move my head. It makes me nauseous, dizzy, unsteady on my feet, and…quite frankly…like shaking my head. I can easily see how these symptoms also relate to dogs.

-LA Theriault

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.


Central vestibular disease isn’t as commonly diagnosed. It refers to disorders that affect the brain stem and cerebellum.  Although dogs will exhibit the same signs noted above, other symptoms might also be present. These include:

  • Unusual posture
  • Unusual mental state
  • Some facial paralysis might be present
  • reduced sensation in the face
  • slow movement of the tongue
  • reduced gag reflex
  • eye-twitching up-and-down and NOT side-to-side.

These additional signs and symptoms are related to brain stem dysfunction.


Vestibular Disease in dogs refers to an inner-ear condition.  The disease could be peripheral (the eyes dart side-to-side), or the more rarely diagnosed central vestibular disease (the eyes do not dart in the direction of the lesion)

If no known cause can be identified, the condition is considered idiopathic. However, if the condition is identified as being central, it’s more likely that a central cause will be identified.

Distinct symptoms that you won’t find in central vestibular disease:

  • Eyes that dart in different directions, independent of themselves. The term for this is disconjugate nystamus.  This is rarely seen in both central and peripheral vestibular conditions
  • Direction of eye-darting (nystagmus) changes when the position of the animal is changed. This is rarely seen in central vestibular conditions. It is never seen in cases of peripheral vestibular disease

FACT:  Any vestibular disease in dogs (whether it’s considered peripheral or central) can still be considered idiopathic if the veterinarian isn’t able to establish an underlying cause.


During the exam, the veterinarian will perform some tests to identify vestibular disease. The doctor will first perform a physical examination. He/she will look into the dog’s eyes, assess gait and response.

In addition to a physical exam, the veterinarian will want to know the dog’s history. He/she will also want to know if your dog has exhibited signs like this in the past (recent or distant).

He/she will want to know when you noticed the problem, where the dog was, what the dog has eaten, whether or not the dog has been treated for worms, and whether or not the dog has any other chronic conditions.

If the veterinarian isn’t satisfied with the results so far, he/she may order blood tests.

If your dog was perfectly fine one minute and exhibiting these sudden symptoms (with no other indication of infection, poisoning, or stroke), the veterinarian is likely to diagnose a vestibular condition.

The veterinarian will want to know if your dog has been on antibiotics recently. Overusing antibiotics, specifically one called metronidazole, has been shown to cause toxicity in some dogs, at certain dosages.  The Journal of Veterinary Medicine reports that the dosage doesn’t even have to be particularly high.

How Will I Know if my Dog Has Taken Metronidazole?

To find out whether your dog has taken this particular antibiotic, ask your veterinarian (current or past) for a list of the medications that have been prescribed to your dog.

Metronidazole is used to treat infections in dogs. It also stops the growth of bacteria and parasites. The side-effects of this drug can include dizziness, headache, stomach upset, vomiting, and diarrhea.

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