Dealing with a sick dog or cat is always a scary situation for pet owners. It’s heartbreaking to watch a beloved four-legged friend suffer. Additionally, dogs and cats obviously cannot communicate the source of their pain so it’s difficult for pet owners to determine if and when something is wrong. Interestingly enough, many dogs and cats suffer with the same or similar diseases and medical conditions as humans. Some of which can be very serious. For example, vestibular disease in dogs, or also medically known as idiopathic vestibular syndrome can be an incredibly scary condition. This is because it often resembles life-threatening symptoms, such as a stroke or a brain tumor. Vestibular disease in “laymen’s terms” is also known as “old dog disease” or “old rolling dog syndrome”.
The good news is the prognosis for this condition is good, if treated immediately by a professional veterinarian. However, to the untrained human eye, it may not be clear that a dog is suffering with vestibular syndrome. Read on to learn more about vestibular disease in dogs, the common signs and symptoms, and how to treat it.
What is the Vestibular System?
Before we get into vestibular disease in dogs, it’s important to understand what the vestibular system is and how it works. The main function of the vestibular system is to maintain balance. The main parts of the vestibular system are located in the brain, the inner ear, and also the middle ear.
A healthy and functional vestibular system in dogs allows them to maintain balance, run, jump and live happy, healthy, and active lives. Therefore, if the vestibular system fails or malfunctions, then this can cause a loss of balance, head tilt, rapid eye movements (nystagmus), and even motion sickness. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are also common clinical signs of vestibular disease in dogs.
What Does the Vestibular System Actually Do?
The primary components of the vestibular system are located in the brain as well as the middle and inner ear (near the petrosal bone). However, despite popular belief, the vestibular system actually has nothing to do with hearing.
Loss of Balance
The vestibular system communicates with the brain through a series of semicircular canals. These semicircular canals help to maintain balance, sense of motion, and spatial orientation. These canals are also filled with fluid. When fluid flow or circulation is interrupted, then this can create a loss of balance and mobility and motion issues; thus, leading to the onset of vestibular dysfunction or vestibular syndrome.
What is Vestibular Disease in Dogs?
Vestibular disease in dogs is a sudden loss of balance in your pup. There are two different types of vestibular disease in dogs: peripheral vestibular disease and central vestibular disease. Out of the two, peripheral vestibular disease is more common.
Peripheral vestibular disease – Peripheral vestibular disease affects the inner ear. It is often due to an irritation or damage of the cranial nerves in inner ear, the middle ear, and the brain. Damage or irritation of the inner ear can also be due to minor issues, such as an infection or excessive cleaning of the ears. On the other hand, it can be due to more serious issues, such as stroke, brain tumors, head injuries or trauma.
Central vestibular disease – Central vestibular disease is much more serious than peripheral. It begins in the central nervous system (vestibulospinal tract) and the brain. Central vestibular disease is often caused by inflammation, infection, trauma, injury or a bleed in the brain.
Here are some dog breeds that at a higher risk for experiencing vestibular signs:
- German shepherds
- Doberman pinschers
- Tibetan terriers
- English cocker spaniels
- Smooth Fox Terriers
Again, older dogs are also more prone to experiencing vestibular signs and vestibular disease. Although congenital disease in puppies is possible, it is relatively rare.
Causes of Vestibular Disease in Dogs
The most common causes of vestibular disease in dogs is due to middle or inner ear infections. However, there are more serious cases of vestibular disease in dogs where a vet cannot pinpoint an exact cause. Therefore, these cases of vestibular disease can not be officially diagnosed. Although these cases are rare, they can happen. Another common cause of vestibular disease in older dogs is benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV).
Here are the most common causes of vestibular disease in dogs:
- Chronic inner or middle ear infections
- Brain tumors
- Excessive ear cleaning, which can perforate or damage the eardrum
- Head injury or trauma
- Certain medications, such as amikacen, neomycin, and tobramycin
- Severe emotional stress
Symptoms of Vestibular Disease in Dogs
We briefly mentioned above that one of the most common clinical signs of vestibular syndrome is loss of balance and head tilt. However, here is a list of some additional clinical signs of vestibular syndrome to be on the lookout for in your pup:
- Mobility issues
- Motion sickness
- Lack of appetite
- Disinterest in playtime or physical activities
- Rapid eye movement (nystagmus)
- Difficulty getting up, standing or walking
- Persistent dizziness
- Sensitivity to light or loud noises
- Difficulty focusing on objects
- Impaired vision
- Loss of hearing
Additionally, most symptoms and signs of a vestibular disorder don’t come on slowly; they are mostly sudden or immediate, and therefore require immediate care and diagnosis.
How is Vestibular Disease Diagnosed?
Because vestibular syndrome can be confused with other more serious conditions, such as a brain tumor or stroke, it is always a good idea to seek help from a vet. A vet will typically diagnose a dog based on medical history, age, and clinical signs.
Most vets will often determine if a dog has a vestibular disorder through a series of blood or urine tests, or even an otoscopic examination. Some vets may also order radiographs of the head in order to take a closer look at the the middle and inner ears. In some cases, vets may also recommend imaging, such as an MRI or CT scan to look for the presence of any brain tumors.
All in all, a vet will recommend various tests and exams based on the following criteria:
1. The age of the dog
2. Sudden signs of peripheral vestibular disorder
3. No signs of an ear infection, trauma, hypothyroidism or brain tumors
Some of the clinical signs and symptoms that your vet will look and test for include the following:
- Damage to the cerebellum of the brain
- Restricted blood flow to the brain
- Tick-borne diseases
- Trauma or injury
- Low blood pressure
- Heart arrhythmia
Like vestibular disease, all of these conditions can come on very fast.
Old Dog & Vestibular Disease
Although vestibular disease is treatable, it can be very scary. This is because the clinical signs and symptoms of vestibular disease or any type of vestibular disorder are very similar to those of a stroke. Older dogs are more at risk for vestibular disease. In fact, as mentioned above, vestibular disease is often referred to as “old dog” disease.
How To Tell a Dog Stroke from Vestibular Disease
So, how can you tell the difference between a stroke and vestibular disease? Although the symptoms are closely related, vestibular disease and strokes cause two different reactions in the brain.
For example, a stroke often involves the cerebellum (flocculonodular lobe) in the brain. During a stroke, the vestibulum remains intact. However, the loss of balance that most dogs experience is due to a malfunction of the cerebellum. This is caused by a lack of blood flow to the brain, which causes the brain tissue to die, and a loss of brain function. A stroke can also be brought on by trauma or hemorrhaging of the brain tissue.
Stroke Symptoms in Dogs
Now that you have an understanding of the symptoms of vestibular disease, here is a list of common symptoms of a stroke in older dogs:
- Loss of balance
- Vertical and diagonal rapid eye movement (vestibular disease typically only causes horizontal rapid eye movement)
- Abnormal peripheral reflexes (such as with the vestibulo-ocular reflex)
What to Do If Your Dog Suffers a Vestibular Syndrome Attack or a Stroke
If your dog is falling down, unable to stand, or tilting his or her head, then he or she is likely experiencing a similar episode to feeling dizzy or acting drunk. All in all, try not to panic. Take a deep breath and approach your dog accordingly.
Here are some immediate things you can do to help your dog:
- Help your dog lie down
- Keep your dog as calm as possible
- Keep your dog confined in a small room
- Provide comfortable and supporting bedding (blankets and/or pillows)
- Avoid him or her going near the stairs
- Keep your dog as comfortable as possible
- Use a harness while walking outside
- Try to get him or her to drink water to avoid dehydration
- Avoid giving your dog food
- Call your veterinarian immediately
It’s important to remember that if your dog is experiencing an attack of any kind—whether it is vestibular disease or a stroke—you must protect him or her from further injury. This is why it is best to keep your dog as comfortable as possible and remove any objects he or she could trip over. In the meantime, call your vet immediately.
Treating Vestibular Disease in Dogs
As mentioned briefly above, vestibular disease in dogs is entirely treatable. In some cases, signs of a vestibular disorder may improve or disappear after a few days. However, it’s still important to seek emergency help from your vet if your dog experiences an attack. A professional vet will help diagnose vestibular disease and determine the root cause of the disease (an infection, trauma, or head injury, or a stroke).
If your dog is diagnosed with a vestibular disorder, then the best thing you can do to help your dog is by giving him or her the care he or she needs. For example, geriatric dogs with peripheral vestibular disease often need supportive therapy in the form of IV fluids and supplemental nutrition, as well as help with eating and drinking.
If your dog is having serious difficulty with standing, walking, or moving, then sedatives may be necessary to help him or her relax. Your dog may also need anti-nausea medications to help combat loss of balance and motion sickness often associated with vestibular disease.
If the root cause of geriatric vestibular disease is an ear infection, then a vet may prescribe your dog antibiotics to help treat the infection. Some vets have used corticosteroids in the past to help treat dogs with vestibular disease; however, there is little scientific evidence proving that they are helpful.
Cerenia For Dogs
Cerenia is an anti-nausea medication that reduces nausea and vomiting due to motion sickness. An FDA-approved medication, Cerenia has an 88 percent success rate. Additionally, 91 percent of pet owners would recommend it to others.
Cerenia is available as an injection as well as in tablet form. The injections are safe for dogs and cats that are at least four months old, while the Cerenia tablets are safe for those that are at least two months old. Cerenia for dogs is currently available by prescription only.
Dramamine For Dogs
Most pet owners have heard or may have used Dramamine to help reduce motion sickness, nausea, and vomiting due to car or boat rides. But did you know that dogs can also take Dramamine? Dramamine, or Dimenhydrinate, is an over-the-counter medication that can also be used to treat nausea and motion sickness for dogs and cats.
Antihistamines are often associated with treating allergies. However, antihistamines have also proven to help the vestibular system. Dramamine is a type of antihistamine that prevents the vestibular system of the brain from overstimulation. When the vestibular system is overstimulated, this is what causes dizziness, nausea, and loss of balance typically associated with vestibular disease.
Although Dramamine is an over-the-counter medication for humans, it can be prescribed legally by a veterinarian. This is because Dramamine is not approved by the FDA for animal use. If you choose to give your dog Dramamine, do not do so without supervision or recommendation from a vet.
Holistic Treatment Methods
Many pet owners are adopting holistic treatment methods to help their pets with various illnesses, ailments, diseases and conditions. Vestibular disease can be also treated with various natural methods.
In fact, many pet experts recommend trying holistic methods to treat vestibular disease in dogs rather than traditional, conventional medicine. This is because conventional medications typically include suppressants, such as antihistamines, steroids, antibiotics, antiviral medications and even valium.
Unfortunately, these common types of medications are also infamous for causing adverse effects. Some of these effects might even be similar to those of vestibular disease! This can be incredibly frustrating for pet owners. As a result, many pet owners have used various holistic methods with great success.
Yes, symptoms of vestibular disease typically subside on their own after several days. However, because pet owners want to help their dogs recover and heal faster, here are some of the best and natural ways to treat vestibular disease in your dog.
Yes, physical therapy for dogs is a real thing. In fact, many pet owners take their dogs to physical therapy on a regular basis. Similar to humans, dogs can undergo similar forms of physical therapy, including veterinary chiropractic treatment or even canine therapeutic massage. You can speak to your vet about finding a veterinary chiropractor. You can also visit the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association to find veterinary chiropractors in your area.
Vestibular rehabilitation can involve various methods to help treat symptoms associated with dizziness or loss of balance due to disruptions in motion or visual impacts. Furthermore, energy treatments, such as cranio-sacral therapy has also proven to help.
Cranio-sacral therapy (CST) involves applying gentle pressure to a dog’s cranial nerve. The goal of this treatment method is to release constrictions and balance and reset the central nervous system. Some pet owners have also tried Reiki and acupuncture to help their dogs.
In addition to physical therapy, cranial therapy, and other conventional medications, there are a number of natural herbs that can also naturally reduce nausea, vomiting, and loss of balance due to vestibular disease.
Here are some common herbs that can naturally treat these symptoms:
Gingko – Gingko is an herb that is used as a natural supplement to treat various ailments—one of which includes cognitive functions. Gingko is available in a powder capsule form, and can be given to dogs (between 25 and 50 lbs) every 8 to 12 hours.
Amla – Amla is also known as Indian gooseberry. It is an excellent source of Vitamin C, which can help reduce dizziness. Amla can be given to dogs every 12 hours (500 to 1000 mg).
Ginger root – Similar to Gingko, Ginger root provides many health benefits. Many humans take ginger root supplements to help treat many ailments and conditions. Ginger root has also proven to reduce nausea. Ginger root is also safe for dogs (one capsule up to 20 lbs) between one to three times per day.
Inner Ear Balance Formula by Bright Nutrition – This herbal supplement is also safe for dogs. This formula helps to balance inner ear fluid, minimize dizziness, improve balance and mobility, and reduce vertigo episodes.
One important note is that the recommended dosage is designed for humans. So, be sure to speak with your veterinarian about how much you should give your dog based on his or her weight.
Can You Prevent Vestibular Disease in Dogs?
Much like humans, some dogs may be more prone to developing vestibular disease than others. This may not necessarily depend on the breed so much as the individual dog. There may be some things you can do to help prevent vestibular disease in dogs.
Some of these methods can include the following:
- Avoid head injuries or any form of trauma.
- Don’t allow your dog to come into contact with toxic chemicals or other hazardous substances.
- Avoid medications, such as neomycin or aminoglycoside.
- Don’t over clean your dogs ears.
On the other hand, idiopathic vestibular disease is often more common in older dogs. So, unfortunately, as your dog ages, he or she is more likely to have an idiopathic vestibular episode. The best thing you can do for your dog is to keep him or her as comfortable and safe as possible. Then, seek immediate veterinary treatment. Again, a vet will ensure that idiopathic vestibular disease is really idiopathic vestibular disease and not another more serious issue.
The Prognosis for Vestibular Disease in Dogs
In summary, yes, vestibular disease can be very scary, but it is not usually life-threatening. Again, it is very common and recurring in older dogs. Symptoms and clinical signs of vestibular disease are usually at their worse within the first 24 to 48 hours, and then begin to subside after this period. However, the head tilt sign can last up to seven to 10 days. Although vestibular disease typically resolves on its own, it’s still important to seek veterinary treatment and diagnosis.
The prognosis for dogs with vestibular disease is good. Dogs can recover and still enjoy a quality life with vestibular disease.
All in all, it is still important for pet owners to understand what vestibular disease is, and how it impacts dogs, so that they can prepared if and when their dog has an attack.