Vestibular Syndrome In Dogs

Vestibular syndrome affects a dog's balance and it encompasses a group of disorders that affect their vestibular system. When a dog's vestibular system is negatively impacted, they fall over and have real trouble keeping their balance because the sensors responsible for making sure they can keep upright don't work as they should any more.

The Vestibular System Explained

The vestibular system comprises a lot of sensors that are found deep inside a dog's ear which is known as the inner ear. These sensors together with a control centre that's found at the back of a dog's brain make sure they are able keep their balance. These “balance sensors” are work continually and their task is to detect the exact position of a dog's head whether they are resting or on the move. The information is then converted into all-important electrical signals which get sent to the control centre. The brain then processes these signals before sending the information to the rest of a dog's body which ensures they stay standing. At the same time, messages are being sent to a dog's muscles which controls the movement of their eyes so they can alter position to match the position of a dog’s head.

Signs there may be a problem

The most common signs to watch out for when a dog is suffering from vestibular syndrome include the following:

  • Falling over
  • Head tilt
  • Flickering eyes
  • Circling around
  • Unsteadiness on their legs

Because a dog's balance centre is located so close to the area of the brain that's responsible for them vomiting, they are often nauseous and will often throw up when they are suffering from the condition. Their balance sensors are also very close to their hearing sensors and nerves responsible for their eye movement, eyelids and lips too. As a result of this dogs suffering from vestibular syndrome often lose their hearing and the muscles in their faces become paralysed which causes them to droop.

If a dog's entire balance centre in the brain is negatively impacted, it can affect other areas of the brain too which can then lead to a dog experiencing seizures, they become weak, lose their sight and have real trouble eating or drinking.

Causes

Vestibular syndrome can be caused by several diseases that negatively impact any part of the sensors found within the inner ear or the nerve that connects the ear with the brain. It can be caused by a disease affecting the control centre that's situated in a dog's brain. In short, if any part of the balance system is affected it can lead to a dog suffering from vestibular syndrome.

Other reasons why a dog's balance system might be negative impacted include the following:

  • Otitis - deep ear infections
  • Tumours in the ear
  • Polyps
  • Damage to a dog's skull when hit by a car or when they have experienced a bad fall

A dog's vestibular nerve might be negatively impacted by the following disorders which could lead to them suffering from the condition:

  • Nerve tumours
  • Neuritis - Inflammation of the nerves
  • An under-active thyroid gland

A dog's brain might be affected by the following conditions which could result in them developing the condition:

  • Brain tumours
  • Encephalitis - inflammation or infection
  • A stroke
  • Trauma to the head
  • Certain vitamin deficiencies and more especially a thiamine deficiency
  • Brain cysts

There are some antibiotics that can trigger the condition which is particularly true of  dogs known to have a sensitivity to certain medications  although dogs in their senior years can start developing vestibular syndrome for no apparent reason which vets refer to as "idiopathic vestibular disease".

Diagnosing the condition

Very often just a description of how a dog's behaviour or stance has changed is enough for a vet to suspect they may be suffering from vestibular syndrome. However, because there are other disorders that boast having quite similar symptoms, it is vital for a vet to confirm whether a dog is suffering from the condition or something else before deciding on the best treatment. As such, they will typically perform a thorough neurological examination on a dog they suspect have developed the condition which will help determine whether the problem lies in a dog's ear or in their brain.

The sort of examination a vet might recommend includes the following:

  • Examining the ear with a scope and taking a swab to establish whether a dog is suffering from an ear infection
  • MRI scan - this will see if the problem lies behind a dog's eardrum which could be an extremely deep ear infection or a tumour. It will also help establish if the cause is a brain disease
  • CT scans - this will establish if a dog is suffering from some sort of brain disease
  • Testing fluid in a dog's brain and spinal cord (CSF)

Treatments

Should a vet find there is an underlying cause that's causing the condition and they can treat it, then a dog's symptoms should improve. However, if there is any irreversible damage to any balance sensors found in the inner ear, a dog may always have a head tilt or they may occasionally lose their balance despite having been given the correct treatment for their condition.

If a dog experiences a significant loss of balance and are continually being sick, a vet may recommend giving them certain drugs that have been shown to be effective at controlling motion sickness in dogs. However, finding out the underlying cause of a dog's symptoms is paramount to being able to treat them successfully.

Prognosis

The prognosis for dogs that suffer from vestibular syndrome depends very much on the underlying cause of their condition. There are some infections that can be successfully controlled whereas other more serious infections are not easily treatable and this includes when a dog has developed a tumour which has led to them developing vestibular syndrome.

However, if there are no underlying causes found for a dog having the condition, then the prognosis is generally good and they recover without the need for any treatment. With this said, their recovery can take several months and in some instances, a dog may have a head tilt for the remainder of their lives.


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