What is Vestibular Disease?
The vestibular system in dogs helps them to keep a normal balance and posture. This system is inside the brain and has elements in the inner and middle ears containing receptors.
When the vestibular system is working properly, it functions like the spirit level used by carpenters: when the structures of the system sense an imbalance, they can trigger counteracting motions/postures that regain balance to the body.
Vestibular disease occurs when this essential system is disrupted for one reason or the other. Mostly, one side of the system is disrupted. Once that happens, the dog unable to properly maintain balance because one ear’s receptors are not working or one side of the system is inhibited (in the case of a tumor).
Some people may know it by other names including ‘old dog vestibular syndrome’ and ‘idiopathic vestibular syndrome.’
The term idiopathic vestibular syndrome is used when vestibular disease occurs spontaneously and with no known causes.
And, yes, ‘old dog vestibular syndrome’ does indicate that older dogs are more prone to developing vestibular disease but any dog at any age, can develop vestibular disease.
Vestibular Disease Symptoms
- Sudden onset of the loss of balance
- The dog appears to be tilting the head unusually
- Rapid and irregular eye flicking movements, clinically know as nystagmus
- Reluctance to stand or walk
- A drunken gait
- The loss of stability ex. the dog may lean or fall over on the direction of their head tilt
- Continuous circling in one direction
- Vomiting – caused by motion sickness
Vets and neurologists can diagnose vestibular disease in several ways such as observing the clinical signs noted below, carrying out blood and urine tests, blood pressure measurements, and radiographs or head x-rays to check the status of the middle and inner ears.
In some cases, neurologists use an MRI or CT scan may be used to check for tumors or irregularities affecting the vestibular system. A Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response (BAER) response may be performed. BAER tests the hearing pathways that are close to the vestibular pathways.
It is often difficult to distinguish between idiopathic vestibular disease and ischemic strokes because both occur in older dogs and present with similar clinical signs which dissipate gradually with little targeted therapy. In this case, neurological tests are necessary for distinguishing the two diseases.
Knowing which is which is important because nearly half of the dogs that suffer from strokes have a notable underlying cause that makes them more prone to more strokes. They risk continued illness and even death. Furthermore, it is only proper that the dog gets treated for the right disease.
Therefore, as much as neurological tests may be seen as secondary diagnostic methods, they may be crucial in some cases. Also, the similarities in these two diseases are a good reason why you should speak with your vet immediately following the onset of clinical signs and not ‘wait and see’ whether the symptoms may dissipate.
Vestibular Disease Treatment
The prognosis for the vestibular disease is not fatal or crippling. While all dogs are different, generally, the symptoms will be the most severe within the first 24 to 48 hours of their onset. Beyond that and over the following 24 hours, most dogs begin healing all on their own or with little medical interventions.
Here, ‘healing’ is referring to the lessening of symptoms. The tilting head and the wobbly movements usually take 7-10 days to dissipate, and complete recovery takes about 2-3 weeks for most dogs. If there is no known cause to the disease, often referred to as idiopathic onset, the vet may hold off on treatment to see if symptoms resolve on their own. If not, then the vet will look for more serious causes.
Treatment options may include intravenous fluids and hospitalization until the dog is strong enough to walk and eat on its own. In some cases, sedatives may be used to relax a severely disoriented or ataxic (lack of voluntary muscle coordination) dog. As the symptoms dissipate, physiotherapy is a great supportive approach to ensuring your dog regains proper movement and posture.
Physiotherapy helps to work the inactive joints and muscles of the limbs, preventing stiffness, muscle weakness, and contracture that could slow down recovery.
Is Vestibular Disease Painful?
No, vestibular disease is not a painful disease for the dog. However, the dog may experience some discomfort due to the failure to coordinate movements and posture and the motion sickness that is common with this disease.