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Health & Wellness

Vestibular disease in dogs: symptoms and treatments

Here’s why your pup may be dizzy

If you’ve noticed that your dog seems dizzy or can’t walk in a straight line, they could be struggling with vestibular disease — a condition that causes loss of balance and coordination in (mostly older) pups. We’ll walk you through the disease’s causes, symptoms and treatment options so you know how to best care for your pet. 

What is vestibular disease in dogs? 

According to Dr. Aliya McCullough, Fetch’s on-staff veterinarian, vestibular disease is when there’s a disruption in a dog’s vestibular system — the part of the central nervous system that is responsible for balance and controls a dog’s body position. This disruption can cause loss of balance and coordination, head tilt and nystagmus (involuntary side-to-side or circling motion of the eyes).

There are two parts of the vestibular system — the peripheral portion, which includes the inner ear, and a central area, which contains structures that connect to the spinal cord and brain, she adds. Although it’s less likely for the central area to be impacted by vestibular disease, when it is, the condition tends to be more serious.

Vestibular disease can be caused by an inner ear infection, trauma or a lesion in the brain. However, most cases are idiopathic, meaning veterinarians don’t know what causes the episode. 

Symptoms of vestibular disease in dogs

If you’ve ever experienced seasickness, it’s a pretty good comparison of what vestibular disease feels like to your pup. According to Dr. McCullough, vestibular disease is sometimes referred to as vertigo in dogs because a pet experiences a dizzying or spinning sensation. Contact your veterinarian if you notice any of the following symptoms of vestibular disease in dogs: 

  • Circular or side-to-side movement of their eyes
  • Tilting their head
  • Circling
  • Losing balance or incoordination (which could include leaning, falling or rolling)
  • Nausea

Symptoms of vestibular disease typically begin to resolve on their own within a couple of days and continue to improve over 2-3 weeks (talk to your veterinarian if your dog’s symptoms continue). But, during that time, most pets will need supportive treatment to deal with dizziness and accompanying nausea — your vet will know what’s best for your best friend.

Diagnosing vestibular disease in dogs

Always reach out to your veterinarian to determine if your pup has vestibular disease. Diagnosing this condition is usually based on the results of a physical exam, in addition to your pet’s clinical signs. 

Dr. McCullough notes that your vet may recommend a thorough exam of their ear canal or a neurologic exam to distinguish if the disruption is happening in the central or peripheral areas of the vestibular system. In some cases, blood work or an MRI may be needed to rule out brain injuries and illnesses or inner and middle ear infections. 

Treatment options for vestibular disease in dogs

Talk to your vet about the right treatment plan for your pup. While there’s no specific treatment for idiopathic vestibular disease, your veterinarian may recommend anti-nausea medications to treat dizziness and motion sickness. More severe vestibular disease cases might require extensive vet care like intravenous (IV) fluids and nutritional support until the dizziness has passed, Dr. McCullough says.

Don’t give your pup a new medication without clearing it with your vet first. According to Dr. McCullough, it’s not a good idea to use Benadryl as a treatment for vestibular disease in dogs.

To help your dog feel more comfortable at home, Dr. McCullough recommends creating a calm, quiet and well-lit environment for your pup to recuperate. It’s also a good idea to keep your dog away from stairs, slippery surfaces or open water like pools or ponds. 

“Nursing care, such as cleaning soiled fur and monitoring skin for wounds, is also an important feature of treatment as affected dogs may have difficulty moving and can injure themselves,” Dr. McCullough says.

How to feed a dog with vestibular disease

If your dog is dizzy during mealtimes, eating could be a challenge. “Dogs with vestibular disease are best fed in an upright position to prevent food and water from entering the airway,” Dr. McCullough says. “If pets are not able to get adequate food and water, they may need to be hospitalized to receive IV fluids and nutritional support.”

The Dig, Fetch's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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