Vestibular Disease in Dogs

Vestibular disease is a problem that may occur in older dogs where the dog looks like it has lost balance and is confused. Learn more about vestibular disease in dogs. What is vestibular disease? How to diagnose vestibular disease in dogs. How to care for a dog with vestibular disease? Why is my dog holding his head tilted?

If your dog is suddenly acting strange, falling over, rolling to one side, tilting its head, behaving not quite right, you should suspect Vestibular disease. This is similar to a stroke, and prior to development in brain imaging techniques, we often mistook Vestibular disease as being a stroke. You will note that dogs can get strokes, but what we are talking about here today, is something different than a stroke.

Vestibular disease is basically an inner ear problem. The vestibular system being the name for the inner ear and the nerves that run to the brain. Since balance is controlled and regulated in the inner ear any problems with this area will show as dizziness or balance problems.

You will want to note that the common age of onset of Vestibular disease is after 10 years, but it can occur in younger dogs as well.

Symptoms of Vestibular Disease

  • The dog may tilt its head to one side
  • Eyes tend to wander, often looking off to the side
  • The dog may keep its eyes shut or blink more often
  • The dog may walk with a staggering gait, even falling down to one side
  • Circling behavior
  • Facial tics or twitching of the face muscles
  • Paralysis of facial muscles
  • The dog may seem confused, drunk, or dizzy
  • The dog may loose interest in eating
  • Vomiting
  • Incontinence, or frequent urination

Causes of Vestibular Disease

Vestibular disease in dogs can have many causes. Infection to the ear, or from the brain. Cancer, poison, or even parasites in the ear. Immune diseases can contribute to a dog developing this problem as can an under active thyroid. Encephalitis can also bring on Vestibular disease. Sometimes we simply do not know the cause of the problem, and occasionally it starts, and stops, all on its own.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Vestibular Disease

A veterinarian is required to diagnosis vestibular disease and to make the distinction between it and a stroke, or other problem. They may do a test of the Cerebrospinal Fluid, which is fluid around the brain, and/or giving the pet an MRI. Both tests may be costly to an owner. A thyroid test may be done as well. Do not encourage the dog to “snap out of it” rather it is best to keep the dog calm, and relaxed.

Once diagnosed, if the cause is parasites (including ear mites), or infection, treatment for the cause should be given immediately, however long term damage may have already been done. As mentioned, sometimes vestibular disease starts, and goes away all on its own, in these cases the dog may still have a characteristic tilt to its head but other symptoms (such as falling over) will have passed.

Focus is then placed on keeping the dog safe, and comfortable. The dog may be given medication to deal with the dizziness. Dogs should be taken for shorter walks, in safe areas (not next to the road) and be kept on leash at all times. Care should be taken in the home that the dog will not fall down stairs, as such the dog should not be allowed to climb stairs or go down them on their own, and stairways should be blocked off.

If the dog is unable to control its urination, it may be fitted with a doggie diaper. If the dog has problems eating it may need to be given a special, more pallet able, diet.

Finally, if you own a dog with such a problem, you must be sensitive, knowing how you feel when going through a dizzy patch will help you understand how your dog must feel. This condition is manageable with love and understanding.

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