Dog tilting its head

Key takeaway

Vestibular disease in dogs affects a dog’s vestibular system, which is located in the brain and controls balance, coordination, and movement. When a dog has vestibular disease, it can experience symptoms like falling, circling, a tilted head, and vomiting. To learn more about vestibular disease in dogs, such as its causes, symptoms, and treatment, continue reading below.

When your dog gets older, a lot of its behaviors will most likely change. They’ll start to walk slower than they used to. They’ll sleep more than usual. Playing a casual game of fetch will seem more like an intense workout than a fun game. Just like humans, as dogs age, they become much less sprightly. But all of these behaviors are completely normal in older dogs.

However, there are some behaviors that might indicate something more serious than just old age. If you notice your dog staggering, experiencing a lack of coordination, or falling over when standing up, they may be suffering from vestibular disease.

Vestibular disease in dogs is essentially a disorder that affects a dog’s vestibular system, which is a part of the brain that controls the sense of balance, coordination, and vision. Vestibular disease is sometimes called “old dog disease,” and noticing the symptoms of vestibular disease can definitely be alarming.

Fortunately, vestibular disease in dogs is quite common, and most dogs will make a full recovery in just a couple of days. However, it’s still important to be aware of the symptoms of vestibular disease, as they can be confused with symptoms of more threatening conditions, like a stroke or brain tumor.

In this blog post, we’ll be going over what vestibular disease is, vestibular disease in dogs symptoms, treatment, and more. To learn more about this common condition that may be impacting your elderly dog, continue reading the post or use the links below to jump to a section of your choice.

What Is Vestibular Disease in Dogs?

Vestibular disease is a non-progressive balance disorder that comes from issues affecting a dog’s vestibular system. The vestibular system is found inside the brain, and it includes the inner ear and middle ear. Vestibular organs tell the brain how to position the body with respect to gravity. It’s essentially the sensory system that provides the body with balance and spatial orientation

Dog outside tilting its head

The vestibular system will tell a dog what position they’re in, whether that be upside down or right-side up. The vestibular system also works with sensory information from vision, which helps a dog maintain balance and have clear vision. So, when a dog is suffering from vestibular disease, its sense of balance and vision are impacted. This is why they’ll often experience difficulty walking and may lose balance or fall randomly.

Vestibular disease can sound a lot scarier than it actually is. Vestibular disease in dogs is not fatal, and it will more than likely disappear on its own. It’s most common in older dogs and large breed dogs, but it can affect younger dogs and small breeds as well.

What Are Symptoms of Vestibular Disease in Dogs?

Being aware of the symptoms of vestibular disease in dogs is crucial so that you can understand what’s going on if you see your dog walking strangely or having difficulty standing up. Some of the most common vestibular disease in dogs symptoms include:

Symptoms of vestibular disease in dogs

  • Pronounced head tilt: A dog with vestibular disease may rotate its head with one ear held lower than the other. A head tilt can range from slight to extreme.
  • Rapid eyeball movements: This is called nystagmus, and it’s a rapid, involuntary movement of the eyeballs. A dog with nystagmus will flicker their eyeball from side-to-side or up and down.
  • Falling: Because vestibular disease affects a dog’s sense of balance, falling to one side while standing up is a very common symptom.
  • Circling: Dogs with vestibular disease tend to circle in one direction when they walk.
  • Wobbliness: A dog with vestibular disease will probably experience a general wobbliness that causes them to drift to one side as they walk.
  • Vomiting: A dog vomiting is a possible side of vestibular disease because they may be experiencing nausea. 
  • Facial drooping: If there is a tumor or inflammatory disease in the inner or middle ear, facial drooping may occur. This is because facial nerves are closely related to the middle ear.
  • Loss of hearing: The hearing sensors are close to the balance sensors on a dog, so a dog with vestibular disease may also experience a loss of hearing.

While these are all common symptoms of vestibular disease in dogs, they could also be signs of more serious conditions. Diseases that impact the balance sensors in the brain can also affect other parts of the brain, causing seizures in dogs, weakness, and a loss of vision. 

This is why it’s so important to bring your dog to the vet as soon as you notice them experiencing any of the above symptoms. While they could just be a sign of vestibular disease, which will most likely go away on its own, they could also be a sign of a life-threatening condition that needs immediate medical attention. You’re always better off bringing your dog to the vet to make sure everything is okay.

It’s also important that you’re able to read your dog’s body language so that you can tell when they’re sick or suffering. Some dogs may not show as many obvious signs of illness as other dogs, but a dog’s body language can tell you a lot.

What Causes Vestibular Disease in Dogs?

Vestibular disease in dogs can be caused by any disease or condition that affects any part of the vestibular system. There are a variety of causes of vestibular disease in dogs, such as:

Causes of vestibular disease in dogs

  • Hypothyroidism: Hypothyroidism is when the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough hormones, and it can cause central vestibular disorders in dogs.
  • Injury or trauma: Severe damage to the skull that was due to an accident or a bad fall can impact the vestibular system and cause vestibular disease in dogs.
  • Ear infections: Deep ear infections, which are called otitis, can cause vestibular disease in dogs. If an ear infection causes inflammation of the tissues and nerves in the vestibular system, it can result in this loss of balance. 
  • Drugs: Certain types of antibiotics, such as streptomycin or gentamicin, can cause vestibular disease, especially if the dog has an adverse reaction to the drug.
  • Tumors: Growths, such as tumors, cysts, polyps, can cause vestibular disease, which is also why it’s so important to bring your dog to the vet if you notice any vestibular disease symptoms, as it could be a result of a cancerous tumor.

While these are some of the most common causes of vestibular disease in dogs, the exact cause is not always known. Some dogs will develop vestibular disease for no known reason, which is called idiopathic vestibular syndrome. 

How to Treat Vestibular Disease in Dogs

Ultimately, treatment for vestibular disease in dogs will vary depending on the specific diagnosis. In a majority of cases, vestibular disease isn’t harmful or painful for dogs and most dogs will return to normal within a few days. But that being said, it’s still important to bring your dog to a vet so they can rule out more serious conditions, such as stroke or hypothyroidism, which will require more immediate treatment. 

How to treat vestibular disease in dogs

In order to treat vestibular disease in dogs, a vet must first examine them. This will entail a physical examination that involves the vet checking their eye movement and seeing if they’re able to flip their paw over by themselves. Checking these will help rule out if the dog is suffering from a stroke.

The examination may also show that there is an underlying condition that’s affecting the inner ear, like an ear infection. In this case, treatment will just involve eliminating the ear infection. 

If your dog is just diagnosed with vestibular disease, it can typically be treated at home. They may be prescribed anti-nausea medication if they’re suffering from severe dizziness. If they’re continuously vomiting, they may need to be hospitalized so they can be put on IV fluids. But otherwise, you can typically just let your dog recover at home1.

If you’re treating your dog at home, there are a few things you’ll want to do to aid them with their recovery. It’s important that your dog eats and drinks an adequate amount of water, even though they may not want to because of nausea. It also might be a good idea to keep your dog confined to one space while they’re recovering, because if they have to walk up stairs, they may fall and hurt themselves. If they’re not able to walk to go to the bathroom, you’ll have to help them stand with a harness, or you can use towels as a sling.

Fortunately, most dogs with vestibular disease will make a speedy recovery and will be back to their usual sprightly selves before you know it. But while they’re recovering, it’s imperative that you assist them in any way you can, whether that be helping them walk or eat.

Final Notes

Seeing your dog show signs of vestibular disease is definitely alarming, and the first thought in your mind is probably that they’re suffering from a much more serious disease than they are. But thankfully, vestibular disease in dogs is quite common and very treatable. 

It’s important to be aware of the signs of vestibular disease in dogs so that you can bring them to the vet and make sure it’s not something more serious. And at Dutch, we’re here to help you get your dog the care they need for whatever they may be suffering from.

Our telemedicine for pets gives pet owners access to prescription medication that gets delivered directly to your front door. We work with a network of licensed veterinarians who are trained to help with a host of situations, whether that be identifying signs of anxiety in dogs or diagnosing a dog panting heavily.

Our vets are ready and available to diagnose and treat your dog as quickly as possible. To get started, you’ll begin with an online consultation, where a vet will determine whether or not your dog is a good fit for telemedicine. If they are, they’ll then create a customized treatment plan for your pup and send you the medication they’re prescribed in just 7 days.

So wherever you may be in the country, you can get the care you need with Dutch.com. We believe that all pet owners deserve access to easy and affordable pet care, which is why we’re here to help your furry friend get back to their usual happy selves.