"Dogs and vestibular disease: Knowing the symptoms

"Dogs and vestibular disease: Knowing the symptoms

Health & Safety

Vestibular disease is a health condition that can affect dogs, and which usually develops quickly and can easily be confused with a stroke. It is more common in older dogs than their younger counterparts, and if your dog begins to display symptoms of vestibular disease, they need to be seen by your vet as a matter of urgency.

When your vet examines your dog, they will need to take into account their symptoms and potentially run some tests to make a formal diagnosis, and to establish the most appropriate way of treating the condition itself. Prompt intervention is important in order to give your dog the best possible chances of treating the issue and achieving recovery, and also of course to rule out the possibility of a stroke, which is another condition that requires immediate treatment in order to increase the odds of your dog’s survival.

In this article we will provide a basic outline of vestibular disease in dogs, what it does and why it develops, and share the symptoms of canine vestibular disease to give you the best chance of spotting the problem promptly if it develops in your own dog.

Read on to learn more about the symptoms of vestibular disease in dogs.

What is vestibular disease?

Vestibular disease in dogs is a condition that develops in the dog’s vestibular system, which includes parts of their brain and inner ear, which are responsible for orientation and balance. When a dog develops vestibular disease, their balance and orientation become disturbed, and this is generally fast in onset and obvious to observe, but does not worsen over time.

Vestibular disease in dogs is much more common in senior and elderly dogs than puppies and younger adults, and can affect dogs of any breed and of both sexes.

There are a number of potential triggers or causes of vestibular disease in dogs, and in some cases the condition appears to develop for no good reason at all. If no root cause can be assigned to the issue, vestibular disease is usually referred to as “idiopathic vestibular syndrome” instead.

Where a root cause can be identified, the most common triggers for vestibular disease in dogs include an injury or impact to the head or ears, the development of growths or tumours in one or both ears, and the presence of a primary health condition called hypothyroidism, which can cause secondary complications like vestibular disease to develop too.

Infections of the inner or middle ear, particularly if these occur frequently or are serious and difficult to treat, may also cause vestibular disease to develop, as can the use of certain medications that can affect the ears or brain chemistry too.

What are the symptoms of vestibular disease in dogs?

The first thing you should bear in mind about vestibular disease in dogs is that the condition tends to appear suddenly, and your dog might be perfectly fine one night and displaying symptoms the next morning. This helps to increase the confusion surrounding the correct diagnosis, and because some of the noticeable symptoms of canine vestibular disease are also common to canine strokes, this life-threatening and very serious condition must be considered and ruled out initially.

Only your vet can make the appropriate diagnosis for your dog, but by learning to recognise the symptoms of vestibular disease that you might spot in your dog at home, you will be able to identify them if you see them and seek help promptly.

Here are the main symptoms to look out for:

  • Signs of poor balance and coordination in your dog, which will develop quickly and for no obvious reason. They might fall over, stagger and be unable to walk straight, have problems getting up and down, or appear to keep leaning on or bumping into things.
  • A lot of dogs will refuse to stand up or walk due to their disorientation and lack of balance, which can be very distressing for the dog and of course, the owner.
  • Head-tilting or holding the head skewed to one side is also common, and when the dog overbalances or staggers in a certain direction, it will generally be towards the same direction as they are holding their head.
  • Nystagmus, or an unusual, irregular flickering or jerking of the eyes within their sockets may also develop, which can make your dog’s eyes look as if they are wobbling slightly from side to side, or are unable to remain still and under the dog’s control.

Your vet will diagnose your dog’s condition based on a physical examination, the dog’s health history and talking to you about the symptoms you spotted at home, and they may well wish to run urine and blood panels, and potentially take x-rays and use other imaging tools too.

What is the prognosis for dogs with vestibular syndrome?

One good thing about vestibular disease in dogs is that the symptoms aren’t progressive and don’t worsen, and for many affected dogs, they will actually begin to improve on their own within a couple of days, and get progressively better over the following couple of weeks. However, some dogs will never recover fully and may still display some milder symptoms, although these are much less acute than they are during the condition’s onset.

If there is an underlying health condition or issue causing vestibular disease in your dog as a secondary complication, this must be treated too, in order to enable recovery.

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