Vestibular Disease, or Old Dog Syndrome, is a sudden, non-progressive disturbance of balance in a dog. It is one of the scariest fluffin’ things I had to go through with Otto. Vestibular disease has very similar signs as a stroke so it is very important that at the first sign your dog should go see a vet or emergency vet. Like everything Otto and I lived through I did a lot of research. Vestibular disease is in its simplest form is vertigo created by an imbalance in the inner ear. The good thing is it isn’t deadly and for the most part isn’t permanent.
Signs of vestibular disease:
Wag! reported that symptoms include:
- Pronounced head tilt
- Stumbling or staggering
- Standing with an unusually wide stance
- Unwillingness to eat or drink
- Lack of coordination
- Falling over
- Continuous circling in a single direction
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid eye movement while awake
- Choosing to sleep on the floor or other hard surfaces.
Otto’s first and largest symptom was the inability to stand. He also had a small head tilt and irregular jerking eye movements. The Irregular jerking of the eye is the scary part for the parents and is also a sign of stroke. Below is a video of Otto’s eye movements during a vestibular episode.
As mentioned above, your dog may not have the eye movements but a subtle lean and head tilt. Otto was a “go big or go home” type of pooch especially when he was sick.
What causes it and how do you treat it?
Vestibular disease can be brought on by ear infections, toxins, trauma/injury, tumors or hypothyroidism. Sometimes it comes on without a determinable cause (idiopathic). Idiopathic cases typically come on suddenly and improve rapidly with little to no medical intervention. If a source of the issue is found, the veterinarian will assign treatment related to the source which can include antibiotics, sedatives and anti-nausea medications. In highly extreme cases, your dog may be hospitalized and placed on intravenous fluids until your dog can eat and walk on his its own. In addition to doing a physical exam, your vet will run some blood tests. Additional tests may be conducted if more information is needed.
During the recovery time you may need to change up how you feed your dog due to nausea. Elevated bowls can help so he doesn’t have to reach down too far to eat or drink. Smaller meals may be necessary to avoid vomiting and in some cases hand feeding may be needed as well. During potty time your dog may need some additional support if he cannot go on his own without falling over. Support harnesses come in super handy if he will tolerate it. (some pooches get bathroom shy with a support harness). You can buy a support harness, or your vet can make you one out of some twine and bandage wrap or use a towel. If your dog is like Otto, he will let you use the support harness for walking but not doing his business. We would carry him out to the yard and much to his chagrin, hold him up. Yes, you heard it, I would hold him up by creating a “seat”. He would attempt to squat, and I would grab his thighs to provide support. We called it “quarterbacking”.
It can take up to 3 weeks for your dog to recover from the episode. Sometimes the symptoms don’t go away 100%. A small head tilt or a mild wobbling may stay in place for the rest of your dog’s life.
Can you prevent vestibular disease?
From what I have read, there doesn’t appear to be any true “prevention” since it is something that typically happens naturally. The only potential prevention is to regularly clean your dog’s ears to prevent infection. Our vet had recommended once a week to clean Otto’s ears since he was prone to infections. We made it a Friday night ritual of ear cleaning and face washing and of course treats. I used ear cleaning pads because it was easy and not as scary as attempting to put a cotton swab in his ear or a liquid that may be too much or too little to get the dirt out.
*Helpful resources: VCA Hospitals, Hills, Wag!, Oradell Animal Hospital