Canine Idiopathic Vestibular Syndrome
This was probably one of the most common issues we saw in older dogs when I worked in a veterinary hospital. Its official name is Canine idiopathic vestibular syndrome, but as it is most commonly seen in older dogs, most vets refer to it as old dog vestibular syndrome. It is a neurological condition affecting the vestibular system in the dog’s brain, with outlying components in the inner and middle ear. This system is responsible for maintaining normal balance. When a dog is experiencing vestibular syndrome, the symptoms can be dramatic and cause quite a concern with pet parents as it can look like your dog is having a stroke. Dogs can appear disorientated, with a head tilt and irregular eye movements. They may be nauseous, reluctant to eat or walk, they may fall over and roll around on the floor. Most people first notice their dog suddenly has a loss of balance and is having trouble walking.
To diagnose idiopathic vestibular disease your vet will perform a full exam and be looking for a few things. One of the most apparent signs is the presence of nystagmus; this is the irregular eye movements your dog may be experiencing, the eyes can flick side to side, up and down or in a circular motion. The vet will examine the ears to look for any signs of infection, and they may run some diagnostic tests such as x-rays or bloodwork if they suspect an underlying cause of your dog’s condition. They will also take into consideration your dog’s age and medical history. The diagnosis for canine idiopathic vestibular disease is made in the absence of a detectable cause. The term idiopathic means a spontaneous disease or condition for which the cause is unknown.
As I mentioned, there can be underlying issues which can cause this syndrome including ear infections, hypothyroidism, and tumours. If an underlying cause is found, your vet will put forward a treatment plan to treat the matter causing the vestibular syndrome and offer supportive care to minimize the symptoms your dog may be having. If there is no underlying cause, then the treatment would be a supportive plan. It could involve sedatives to keep them calm as they can experience anxiety over the inability to coordinate their movements, and anti-nausea drugs to help settle their stomach as they may be experiencing nausea from the rapid eye movements and balance issues which is much like motion sickness. Since they are unsteady on their feet with the loss of balance, they will also need help with day-to-day things like going outside to do their business and may need help standing while eating, some dogs may prefer to lie down when they eat. It is best to keep them off couches or beds at this time unless supervised as they are unsteady and may fall or stumble and hurt themselves.
I had a stubborn 13-year-old German shepherd named Chevy who unfortunately came down with this condition, but he was determined to eat at his bowl standing, so I used a harness to hold him up as he ate so he could do it his way. Chevy’s vestibular syndrome lasted around 10 days overall and thankfully he wasn’t left with any lasting aftereffects. It all started when one evening I noticed he was suddenly having trouble walking across the room and when I checked his eyes, I saw he had pronounced nystagmus with his head tilted slightly to the side. I took him into the veterinary hospital the next day to have him checked out and once we ruled out any other issues going on, we treated him supportively with an antiemetic for any possible nausea. Chevy was a determined boy, and he wasn’t about to let anything slow him down from going about his daily routine or stop him from eating; to be honest he seemed to barely notice his own predicament. I had to be the voice of reason while he tried to do everything he shouldn’t, as he acted like nothing was going on. I used a mobility harness to help him stand and walk as he recovered and encouraged him to take it easy even though he had other plans. I bribed him with toys to chew, and lots of cuddles on the dog bed to try and keep him from moving around so much as he was very unsteady. After the first couple of days his symptoms were much better, his walking was less wobbly, his head less tilted, and he gradually got back to normal over the next week or so. Chevy was lucky as he was able to manage quite well with his symptoms, however, some dogs may need more care during the time they are affected and not able to be left alone at home as they are so disoriented.
The symptoms with vestibular syndrome are usually worst within the first 24-72 hours, though the head tilt and wobbly gait may last up to two weeks. Most dogs will make a full recovery from this condition, however, if there is no improvement within the first 72 hours more investigation should be done as to what is causing it. There are also some cases where the dog may fully recover overall but be left with a slight head tilt. It is always best to have your vet check over your dog even after they are fully recovered to make sure all is well. While this condition may be common, you should have your dog examined by your veterinarian if they are experiencing any of these symptoms as it could be related to something more serious.
Emily Charlton is a lifelong animal lover drawing on more than 12 years experience in a veterinary clinic.