Every once in a while we get a
call from a concerned pet owner,
reporting that his dog suddenly
cannot walk in a straight line, and
seems to be falling over to one side.
The pet's head is often tilted to the
same side, and their eyes may be moving rapidly from side to side or
up and down. Usually people tell us
their pet seemed just fine the night
before, but woke up like this today.
Owners are understandably worried, and they
often ask us, "Can dogs have strokes like people
can?" While strokes are uncommon in dogs, they do
sometimes occur. However, what we're describing
here is more likely a condition called vestibular disease,
which is fairly common, especially in older pets.
Your dog may have Vestibular Disease. The
vestibular system is found in cats and humans in
addition to dogs. It includes structures in the middle
ear, nerves that carry signals from the middle ear to
the brain, and parts of the brain itself. It controls the
sense of movement and balance. It helps us know
whether we're upright or upside down, sitting still or
moving, and it allows us to watch moving objects without
feeling dizzy. A problem with the vestibular system
can make us feel disoriented, dizzy and nauseated.
For any animal having problems walking, a visit
to the veterinarian is in order, as soon as possible.
Your veterinarian is able to rule out other conditions
such as intervertebral disc disease, which must be treated immediately for
the best outcome. If your veterinarian suspects
vestibular disease, a neurological examination can
help provide more information about the cause.
Vestibular disease is often caused by infection
in the middle ear, which can irritate the structures of
the ear and the associated nerves, leading to balance
problems and nausea. This is common in dogs who have
a history of previous ear infections. The next step in this
case is usually radiographs (x-rays) of the skull, followed
by deep cleaning and treatment under anesthesia.
Vestibular disease can also be
caused by a problem in the brain,
such as a tumor, stroke, or infection. A
neurological examination can be done,
and the results can be used to evaluate
the likelihood of a problem in the brain. If
a brain lesion is suspected, further testing,
such as blood work and MRI are usually recommended. However,
even with testing, in many cases we are
unable to identify the underlying reason
for vestibular disease, in which case it is
termed idiopathic (unknown cause). This
form of vestibular disease often begins to
improve on its own in just a few days.
Because the idiopathic form of
vestibular disease is quite common,
your veterinarian may suggest waiting a few
days before having any further diagnostic
tests done, since these usually require
referral and can be quite costly. In the
meantime, nausea can be controlled with
medication and the pet can be hand fed
and helped outside to go to the bathroom.
An elevated feeder can make it easier
for the pet to drink. Although vestibular
disease comes on quickly and is very
dramatic, many animals recover completely
after a few days or several weeks.