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German Shepherd Dog getting a check-up at the vet.
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If you’ve ever had issues with your balance, you know how frightening it can be. Well, dogs can have balance issues, too, and the dramatic way it manifests is scary for the dog, as well as the owner observing the signs. Any dysfunction in the body’s system for balance and equilibrium leads to something known as vestibular disease. Learn what vestibular disease in dogs looks like and what you can do to help your dog if they’re ever affected.

What Is Vestibular Disease in Dogs?

Just as in humans, the vestibular system in dogs is the part of the body responsible for balance. Located within the middle and inner ear, it sends messages to the brain about posture, head movement, and the body’s position in space. When the vestibular system isn’t working as it should, a dog cannot balance or coordinate their movements.

Vestibular disease is the general term given to issues with the vestibular system. But when the condition has a sudden onset, doesn’t get progressively worse, and resolves within a matter of weeks, it’s likely canine idiopathic vestibular syndrome (CIVS). One of the most common neurological disorders in veterinary medicine, CIVS happens most frequently in older dogs, which is why it’s also known as old dog vestibular disease, according to Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinarian for the AKC.

Senior dog laying next to a leash indoors.
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What Causes Vestibular Disease in Dogs?

Anything that causes a malfunction in the vestibular system can lead to vestibular disease. Some of the causes include an ear infection in the inner or middle ear, hypothyroidism, tumors or polyps in the middle ear, trauma to the ear such as a ruptured ear drum, and, very rarely, a reaction to medication. When a veterinarian can’t find any specific reason for the condition, it’s diagnosed as CIVS.

Although CIVS is mostly seen in older dogs, young dogs can also exhibit vestibular disease. Certain dog breeds seem to be more susceptible to the disease than others. A recent study in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine looked at over 905,000 dogs in the UK and discovered that the breeds with the highest odds of a vestibular disease diagnosis included French Bulldogs, Bulldogs, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.

What Are the Signs of Vestibular Disease in Dogs?

Vestibular disease in dogs has characteristic symptoms. If you see any of them in your dog, contact your veterinarian immediately. Although it might be CIVS, some symptoms can indicate more dangerous situations. The signs to watch for include:

  • Loss of balance and falling over
  • Head tilt
  • Stumbling or staggering from loss of coordination, also known as ataxia
  • Rapid jerking eye movements or eyes not lining up in the same direction, also known as “nystagmus”
  • Circling continuously in one direction
  • Disorientation
Rottweiler laying down in the yard its head tilted.
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In addition, the disorientation can cause some dogs to feel nauseous or vomit, which can lead to a refusal to eat or drink. Dr. Klein advises, “Most dogs will be reluctant to walk or stand and will often fall or lean in the direction of the head tilt.”

How Do Veterinarians Diagnose Vestibular Disease in Dogs?

As there are many causes of vestibular disease, your veterinarian will take a thorough medical history, look at your dog’s clinical signs, and run tests such as blood and urinalysis, blood pressure measurement, and potentially x-rays. Dr. Klein says, “Occasionally, further imaging such as CT and MRI may be considered to rule out other causes of diseases with similar signs such as inner or middle ear anomalies or possibly brain lesions.”

How Is Vestibular Disease in Dogs Treated?

For vestibular disease in dogs, treatment depends on the underlying cause. For example, if your dog has an ear infection, your veterinarian will prescribe antibiotics to clear it up. Once the infection is gone, the vestibular disturbance will be as well. While your dog is recovering, be sure to keep them safe. Eliminate dangers in the environment, such as stairs and slippery floors, and keep your dog calm and quiet.

For CIVS, a recent study in Frontiers in Veterinary Science found that the most common treatment involved symptomatic care, such as fluids and an antiemetic medication to treat any nausea and vomiting. Dr. Klein explains that if a dog with CIVS improves over the first two to four days, there is a good chance for a full recovery. However, he says, “If a dog fails to improve during this length of time, or if the signs worsen, the prognosis will also worsen as there may be a more serious underlying issue going on with the dog requiring the assistance of a board-certified veterinary neurologist.”

Golden Retriever getting comforted while lying on a table at the vet.
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Can Dogs Recover From Vestibular Disease?

You might be wondering if you should put down a dog with vestibular disease. As dramatic as the signs are, no you shouldn’t. As long as the underlying cause is dealt with, the prognosis for vestibular disease in dogs is good. Most dogs recover within a few weeks of diagnosis, although sometimes they can be left with a permanent head tilt or recurrent ataxia. However, there is nothing life-threatening about those symptoms. In the case where the underlying cause cannot be treated, such as with polyps or a tumor that can’t be removed, your dog can still live a happy life with supportive care for their symptoms.
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