What is “old dog syndrome” or vestibular syndrome in dogs?

What is “old dog syndrome” or vestibular syndrome in dogs?

Health & Safety

Vestibular syndrome, vestibular disease, or to many people, “old dog syndrome” are all names used to describe a type of health condition that can develop in elderly dogs, and which often comes on acutely and is very frightening to the dog owner witnessing it.

Many dog owners who see a dog coming down with vestibular syndrome assume that the dog is having a stroke; and when you know a little bit more about vestibular syndrome or old dog syndrome and how it presents, it is easy to see why.

If your dog is approaching old age, the chances of them developing old dog syndrome or vestibular syndrome is something that will increase exponentially as they get older; and as you might fairly assume, given that we’ve already mentioned that vestibular syndrome can look a lot like a stroke in the dog, this is apt to appear like a very serious and even life-threatening condition.

However, vestibular syndrome or old dog syndrome isn’t necessarily as acute, life-threatening, or apt to necessitate euthanasia as a result of an incredibly poor quality of life afterwards as a stroke, and many dogs make a reasonably good if not full recovery from an attack of vestibular syndrome, and go on to continue to enjoy old age with a viable quality of life for some time afterwards.

This article will tell you a little more about old dog syndrome or vestibular syndrome in dogs, so that you will have a better idea of what you’re dealing with and what the prognosis is for your own dog if they happen to develop it in old age. Read on to learn more.

What is vestibular syndrome, and why is it known as “old dog syndrome?”

Vestibular syndrome is a neurological disorder that affects the dog’s vestibular systems, which are responsible for things like the dog being able to balance, orient itself, and move and walk properly.

Vestibular syndrome usually develops very suddenly, more or less out of the blue, but after the initial attack does not tend to worsen.

Vestibular syndrome is known as “old dog syndrome” as it generally only develops in dogs in old age, particularly those that are fairly elderly. It is also sometimes known as vestibular disease too.

What are the symptoms of vestibular syndrome in dogs?

First of all, if you happen to witness a dog developing vestibular syndrome, this will tend to occur suddenly and if you have any knowledge of stroke symptoms in dogs or people, a stroke will almost certainly be your first thought.

The vestibular system itself involves the inner ear and nerves and systems that pass messages between them and the brain, and dogs will often markedly tilt their heads to one side or lean and stagger to one side if they develop vestibular syndrome.

The main symptoms of vestibular syndrome in dogs are:

  • The mentioned tilted head, which may be subtle or at a very acute angle.
  • The dog appearing dizzy and disoriented, unable to rise, or keeping falling down.
  • The dog may tend to lean, stagger, or continually fall to one side; always the same side.
  • They may stagger in circles, or roll on the floor; however, they won’t undergo seizures or lose consciousness.
  • The dog may throw up or retch, but this is not always the case, and is a little like car sickness; caused due to the nausea associated with vertigo and feeling dizzy and disoriented.
  • The dog’s eyes may squint or develop nystagmus, an uncontrolled flickering of the eyes.

Is vestibular syndrome the same thing as a stroke?

It is very easy to confuse the onset of vestibular syndrome with a stroke, and your vet will consider both potential diagnosis (and potentially others) when you contact them.

However, vestibular syndrome and a stroke in dogs are not the same thing; neither in terms of their origins and causes, or prognosis.

How do vets diagnose vestibular syndrome in dogs?

Your vet may make a diagnosis based on the presentation of symptoms and your account of the initial attack, the age of the dog, and how they seem to be progressing in terms of getting better or worse.

However, they are more likely to run an MRI or CT scan or if this is not possible or affordable, take some x-rays, although the latter is not always definitive.

Can vets treat vestibular syndrome in dogs?

If your vet identifies a root cause for your dog’s vestibular syndrome (such as the development of a tumour, the effects of a knock to the head, or an underlying illness) they will need to treat this, and they may also provide supportive care to help your dog to manage their symptoms.

However, many cases of vestibular syndrome in dogs are idiopathic or develop with no root cause, in which case only management of symptoms and palliative care will be used, if anything.

Do dogs recover from vestibular syndrome?

Vestibular syndrome is a non-progressive condition, which means that the initial acute attack is the worst of it; albeit a dog may have attacks in future.

Many dogs have a noticeable improvement in their symptoms over the course of the days and weeks following an attack, and will regain some or even most of their orientation and balance and be able to return to a good quality of life.

Some dogs will have a full or almost full recovery on their own, whilst others may take many months to make a marked improvement, and may retain some level of head tilt or poor balance.

However, the prognosis for vestibular syndrome in dogs is rather brighter than it is for stroke in elderly dogs, and as mentioned, the condition isn’t progressive.

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