Vestibular syndrome is relatively common in older dogs and tends to present as a sudden loss of balance, wobbliness, head tilt, falling, rolling and flickering of the eyes (nystagmus). Dogs can also vomit due to the feeling of everything spinning. Many owners believe that their pet has had a stroke and that euthanasia is an inevitability; in fact vestibular syndrome tends to improve over the course of a few days, and dogs often make a full recovery.
What is the vestibular system?
The vestibular system controls balance and is composed of sensors within the inner ear and a control centre located at the back of the brain.
What causes idiopathic vestibular disease?
Unfortunately, we don’t know! Despite extensive investigations no cause has been identified, hence use of the term ‘idiopathic’, which means “of unknown cause”.
Occasionally, vestibular signs can be caused by a problem affecting the inner ear such as an infection or tumour. In these cases, the underlying cause must be treated for the vestibular signs to resolve.
What are the symptoms of vestibular disease?
The symptoms typically occur suddenly and include:
- Loss of coordination and balance
- Falling over
- Rolling involuntarily when lying down
- Head tilt
- Eyes flickering from one side to the other (nystagmus)
- Nausea and vomiting
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How is it treated?
If an underlying cause can be identified (e.g. an ear infection) then this needs to be treated for signs to resolve. However, in the majority of cases no cause can be identified and the dog just needs symptomatic treatment, nursing and TLC. Dogs can often be treated at home, but if severely affected then hospitalisation may be recommended until the symptoms start to improve.
Anti-sickness medication is usually prescribed to help with the nausea and motion-sickness. Here are some tips to make your dog feel more comfortable at home:
- Provide a comfortable bed that is easy to get into and out of
- Make sure the water bowl is within easy reach and offer water regularly
- Block staircases and pad corners on sharp furniture to protect your dog from hurting themselves
- Use rugs and mats to help improve grip if you have wooden floors
- Offer tempting food such as warm chicken – feed by hand in bed if needed
Will my dog recover?
Most cases of idiopathic vestibular disease start to improve within 72 hours, but some can take longer to recover and dogs may be left with mild signs such a slight head tilt. The prognosis is generally good though with most dogs back to their normal selves in a matter of days or weeks.