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Dizzy Dogs: What Causes Vestibular Disease?

Dizzy Dogs: What Causes Vestibular Disease?

               You come home to find your dog unable to stand up. She keeps circling or stumbling and falling, her head is tilted to the side and her eyes are quickly moving back and forth (a rapid side to side eye movement known as nystagmus).  Many of us think the worst: Is my dog having a stroke? But, in reality, the most common cause of these symptoms, especially in senior pets is a condition known as idiopathic vestibular disease. 

               The vestibular system is comprised of labyrinthine chambers of the inner ear and associated nerves such as the eighth cranial or vestibular nerve that carry sensory input to the brain.  Together, these components gather information from our environment and provide the brain with information about position and spatial orientation which helps with balance and posture.

               If you’ve ever experienced motion sickness on a boat or amusement park ride, or, if you suffer from vertigo, you know what dogs experiencing vestibular disease are going through.  Dizziness, loss of balance and, often, nausea are the common symptoms when the vestibular system goes awry.

               In idiopathic or “old dog” vestibular disease, the exact cause is unknown, but something aggravates the vestibular nerve or disturbs the inner ear, causing the dizziness and signs described above.  In these cases, the disease is non-progressive and gradually improves over about three to seven days.  Dogs with idiopathic vestibular disease may need assistance in walking or may require supportive care such as IV fluids or anti-nausea medications if vomiting, but nearly all will make a full recovery.  There are other causes of vestibular disease such as a severe middle or inner ear infection, exposure to certain drugs or toxins, head trauma, infection in the brain such as meningitis or tumors within the brain.  And, yes, sometimes a stroke can cause vestibular signs as well.

               Cats can develop vestibular disease as well. The symptoms are the same, and the causes are similar to those in dogs, though parasites such as toxoplasmosis or botfly larvae that have migrated into the brain may also cause vestibular signs in cats.

               As stated, most pets will recover from vestibular disease within a week or two. However, if a severe central brain lesion such as a tumor is present, the signs may not improve and more advanced diagnostics such as an MRI may be recommended.

               Vestibular signs can look very scary, and, if your pet is experiencing these symptoms, a visit to the vet is warranted to try to discern the underlying cause and discuss symptomatic treatment and supportive care to get your pet feeling better. 

               This blog brought to you by the Patton Veterinary Hospital serving Red Lion, York and the surrounding communities.

Schedule an appointment with our team of veterinarians today at (717) 246-3611!