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What is Vestibular Disease in Dogs?

What is Vestibular Disease in Dogs?

Critter Culture Staff



For your dog to live its happy and healthy life, it needs balance and coordination. Your dog uses these to run, play, and even eat. Vestibular disease affects and damages the body system in dogs that controls their balance and coordination.

Vestibular disease can come from a wide range of causes and vary in its severity. The symptoms are the most damaging part of the condition, and these can take away a lot of the best and most enjoyable parts of your dog's life. However, vestibular disease is entirely manageable and sometimes can even resolve itself without treatment.


What is Vestibular disease?

vestibular disease dog balance non-progressive gradyreese / Getty Images

Vestibular disease is a condition that affects the balance of a dog. It is most common in older dogs and is a result of a problem in the vestibular system. The disease appears very suddenly, and the symptoms of vestibular disease are very obvious in any dog. It's also non-progressive, which means your dog's condition won't get any worse. Because of this, if you are able to manage your dog's symptoms, then you can manage the entire disease.


How does the vestibular system work?

dog ear vestibular system balance bymuratdeniz / Getty Images

The vestibular system is the part of a dog that controls and maintains its balance and equilibrium. This means a dog's ability to walk, run, chase a ball, or even eat comes from this system. That makes the vestibular system vital to your dog doing all of their favorite things.

The vestibular system is found inside the ear of a dog as well as the brain, particularly in the brainstem. If any one of these parts of a dog is damaged, then it will disrupt the system and harm the dog's balance and coordination.


What are the signs and symptoms of the disease?

dog balance head tilt falling JoeChristensen / Getty Images

There are a lot of different symptoms when a dog develops vestibular disease, some of which are obvious and some of which are subtle. The most recognized symptom is a dog's sudden loss of balance. This can be clear in different ways, such as walking in tight circles, leaning heavily to one side, or falling down a lot. Another telltale sign of the disease is a dog tilting their head to one side all the time. One symptom that isn't as obvious but is used by vets is called nystagmus. This means a dog's eyes move irregularly and in a sudden, jerking motion.


What causes vestibular disease in dogs?

sick dog lying down HAYKIRDI / Getty Images

There are many possible ways a dog can get vestibular disease. When the ear gets injured or infected, particularly deep enough for the inner ear to be damaged, a dog can get vestibular disease. A tumor on any part of the vestibular system, such as the dog’s ear or the brain stem, can also lead to the condition.


What kinds of dogs get vestibular disease?

doberman pinscher vet exam disease BraunS / Getty Images

Vestibular disease can affect any kind or breed of dog, though there are certain breeds that are more vulnerable to it. Doberman pinschers and German shepherds are both genetically predisposed to the condition. This means that they are more likely to develop vestibular disease and can show signs of having it even as puppies.


Does vestibular disease only affect old dogs?

old dog puppy ChrisAt / Getty Images

Vestibular disease is also known as Old Dog Syndrome, and this can give the impression that your dog could only develop it once they are old. However, even though a dog is more likely to develop vestibular disease as they become older, the condition can affect dogs of any age, and even puppies can have it.


Vestibular disease and stroke

dog veterinarian exam stroke vestibular DjelicS / Getty Images

One of the biggest issues with vestibular disease is how similar it appears to a stroke. If a dog has the condition, they will have all of the same symptoms that they would if they have a stroke. But while vestibular disease is manageable and will often not need serious treatment, an untreated stroke can recur in a dog and even be fatal. So if your dog is showing signs of vestibular disease, make sure that your vet has ruled out a stroke before going forward with treatment.


How is vestibular disease diagnosed?

dog veterinarian imaging test diagnosis shironosov / Getty Images

If your dog is showing signs of vestibular disease, then it is very important you take them to the vet. They will be able to look at your dog’s medical history, assess all of the signs and symptoms, and run blood and urine tests to confirm the diagnosis. Finding the underlying cause of the condition will require more tests, such as x-rays and CT scans, in order to try and find the damage or tumor that has led to your dog developing vestibular disease.


How is vestibular disease treated?

dog veterinarian treatment medicine zoranm / Getty Images

The treatment of vestibular disease will depend on the underlying cause and the severity of the symptoms. If your dog has developed the condition through some damage to the ear, a perforated eardrum, for example, then often it will be left to heal, and only the symptoms will be treated. An ear infection will mean your dog needs to be put on a course of antibiotics. There are extreme cases in which a dog will need hospitalization and the administration of IV fluids, but this is only if the condition is preventing the dog from walking or eating. Many cases of vestibular disease will resolve themselves on their own without needing treatment, and while it does this, the dog will be given medicine to help with nausea and motion sickness.


The outcome of vestibular disease

dog healthy good outcome Capuski / Getty Images

The prognosis for a dog with vestibular disease is often good, as the symptoms will begin to ease within 48 hours of them first showing symptoms in most cases. The most severe symptoms, such as falling over and poor balance, typically improve within the first ten days. Most dogs recover entirely in two to three weeks.

Some dogs will retain residual effects of the disease for the rest of their life, including poor stability or a permanent head tilt, but this is not usually the case.



dog taking medication

Just like humans, dogs can become dizzy and unbalanced due to ear infections. In this instance, a vet will usually prescribe antibiotics and possibly anti-sickness drugs. Many dogs become nauseous with vestibular disease, so your vet may address these symptoms as well as the root cause of the issue.


Nutritional support during recovery

dog eating

Older dogs or dogs with brain inflammation or tumors may require longer treatment and an extended period of recovery. Talk to your vet about the right nutrition, considering the fact that your pet won’t be getting as much exercise, so might not need as many calories. You could also think about including foods associated with neurological health, such as omega-3 fatty acids.


Physical rehabilitation therapies

dog in rehab

Dogs who experience vestibular disease for extended periods of time may need physical therapy in order to relearn the right way to move. Therapists may suggest balance exercises to help your dog regain confidence in their movements, and massage to loosen muscles and provide reassurance.


Environmental modifications at home

dog playing with toy

The most important aspect of treating vestibular disease in dogs is keeping your pet safe. You can invest in non-slip mats for hard floors, add cushioning material onto sharp corners, and ensure all your dog’s toys and bed are on one floor of the home. The more you minimize how far your dog has to move, the safer and more secure they will be while recovering.


Follow-up care and observation

dog at vet

Consistent follow-up care is essential after even short periods of vestibular disease. Regular veterinary check-ups help monitor your dog's recovery so you can catch any setbacks early. At home, observe your dog's behavior and make sure you tell your vet if anything changes. You know your dog best, so your attentiveness could be the key to a full recovery.



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