Vestibular disease in dogs is a common condition that causes a sudden disturbance of balance. Symptoms include a loss of balance, falling, a pronounced head tilt, nystagmus (rapid abnormal eye movement), and a general lack of coordination. It can be distressing to witness, but it’s treatable. In some cases, depending on the cause, the condition may resolve itself within a few weeks.
Some dog breeds, such as German shepherds and Doberman pinschers, are more prone to developing vestibular disease. This condition is commonly seen in older dogs, but it can occur in younger dogs as well.
The good news is that after recovery from vestibular disease, some dogs may have residual symptoms, such as a head tilt, but they will otherwise lead normal lives.
What causes vestibular disease in dogs?
When the vestibular system—located just past the eardrum, in an area called the middle ear— functions normally, it controls balance, posture, and head position. Within the middle ear is the inner ear, and when the middle or inner ear function is impaired, resulting in an abrupt loss of coordination, balance, and other symptoms, this dysfunction indicates vestibular disease. Root causes may include brain tumors, a ruptured eardrum, middle or inner ear infections, side effects from antibiotics, head trauma, or hypothyroidism (an endocrine disease in which there is a decrease in the production of thyroid hormones). In some cases, the cause may be tumors or polyps growing around the middle ear.
When the specific cause is unclear, this condition is known as canine idiopathic vestibular disease—“idiopathic” referring to a condition or disease that arises spontaneously, with unknown origins. Often referred to as “old dog vestibular disease” this form of the condition can resolve with supportive care.
What are the signs and symptoms of vestibular disease in dogs?
- Head tilting
- Rapid abnormal eye movement (nystagmus)
- Walking in circles
- Stumbling or staggering
- Lack of coordination
- Falling over
- Nausea and vomiting
How is vestibular disease diagnosed and treated?
Even though the signs of vestibular disease may seem alarming, chances are your dog will be fine. However, if your dog displays any sudden stumbling, difficulties with balance, falling over, and so on, you should make an appointment to see your vet for an examination as soon as possible. These symptoms could indicate a more serious condition, so it’s best to have peace of mind and ensure your dog is okay.
The vet may want to do a neurological exam, as well as a physical exam, to determine the best next steps. Other tests could include an ear cytology, in which a debris sample is collected from the ear canal to see whether bacteria, yeast, or mites are causing an ear infection. (When the cause of vestibular disease is an ear infection, treatment and resolution of the infection typically resolves the vestibular disease as well.)
There also might be blood work, to rule out blood-related abnormalities that might cause stumbling and loss of balance; and urinalysis to determine whether an underlying condition is causing vestibular disease. Your vet also might recommend advanced imaging, such as X-rays or CT scans, to rule out the presence of tumors or polyps.
To care for your dog, the vet may provide anti-nausea medication to ease motion sickness and vomiting; oral antibiotics to treat bacterial infections; or sedatives to reduce anxiety and promote rest.
In general, the prognosis for vestibular disease is a positive one. Your vet will advise you to monitor your dog carefully to see whether the condition worsens. Otherwise, the most common treatment is waiting patiently for your dog to recover. Keep your dog comfortable and well rested, and block off any stairs to keep your dog safe—also be sure to prevent access to other hazardous areas, such as pools. Vestibular disease isn’t painful, but your dog may feel out of sorts, so being reassuring and calm (and maybe offering some extra treats) is a good way to help. Most dogs will start to improve within a week, and recover fully within a few weeks, and return to full normalcy.