The cute head tilt that your dog gives you; is it just confused, or the sign of a bigger problem? The vestibular system present in most mammals is responsible for maintaining balance. It has parts in the brain, middle ear, and inner ear, and tells us if we are moving, motionless, and what direction our body is moving in. Vestibular disease is a sudden, non-progressive disturbance in this balance, and is common in older dogs. While vestibular disease is not usually serious, it can mimic the signs of a stroke, so let’s learn the causes, signs, and what you can do for your pet.
The causes of vestibular disease can vary; basically any disruption in the brain or ear can affect your pet’s balance. Trauma or injury to the head or ears, an ear infection, or toxicity of drugs can disrupt the vestibular system. Brain tumors, cancer and hypothyroidism can also cause vestibular disease. When no underlying cause can be found, the disease is known to be idiopathic (meaning no present cause). Idiopathic vestibular disease is fairly common, especially if your pet is geriatric.
Signs of vestibular disease are mainly a loss of balance, head tilt, jerking eye movements (known as nystagmus), disorientation, and leaning or falling. Your pet may be dizzy, and as a result can be reluctant to stand or walk, may spin or circle, and may have a loss of appetite or vomiting. If you notice any of these signs in your cat or dog, take them to the vet. They will review the history and symptoms of your pet, and possibly do some x-rays or other imaging of the head or ears. Sometimes a blood or urine sample will be taken, or a hearing test administered. Based on the information the vet gathers, they can diagnose an underlying problem like an infection or tumor, or diagnosis it as idiopathic vestibular disease.
Treatment of vestibular disease depends on if there is another problem causing it. For example, ear infections can be treated with antibiotics, whereas cancerous tumors may require surgery or chemotherapy. The vet may give your pet intravenous fluids and nutrition if they are weak and have not been eating well. They can also prescribe meds for motion sickness, which will help your pet experience less dizziness and nausea. If an animal is very upset and anxious, they may also give them a mild sedative to help them rest. Idiopathic vestibular disease will resolve slowly over time, so managing the symptoms and giving your pet rest is all that is needed.
So your vet has determined the cause of your dog’s dizziness, and is being treated, but what can you do? What your pet needs most is time and rest, so manage YOUR stress, which can be perceived and transferred to your cat or dog. If you are acting anxious and upset, your pet will too. Create a quiet resting spot for your animal that is away from the flow of traffic. They may prefer a hard resting area on the floor over a bed, as the firm ground helps better orient them. You can use a rolled towel shaped like a “C” so they still have something to cradle them while resting. Provide good lighting through the house and other areas your pet may need to navigate. Try not to carry them. Their balance system needs to recover, and it can’t without practice. You can guide your dog with your hands along their sides (firm pressure, so they can stay balanced), or by looping a towel around them like a sling to prevent them from falling. If you must carry your pet, do so while placing their feet firmly on the floor, so the sensory receptors in the pads are being activated.
Idiopathic vestibular disease is usually most severe within the first 24-48 hours, and will start to improve after 72 hours. It may resolve completely within a week, with occasional reoccurrences of a slight wobble from time to time. Often vestibular disease looks much worse than it is, but a trip to the vet is always necessary, to determine whether the pet has a larger health problem.
Sources: Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Vestibular Disorders Association, PetCareRx.com, VCAHospitals.com, healthypets.mercola.com