Old Dog Vestibular Disease

Inner ear problems can trigger Old Dog Vestibular Disease.

Old Dog Vestibular Disease - elderly Greyhound

'Vestibular' basically means 'the perception of body movement and balance'.

The 'Old Dog' part of the equation is there because this is most often seen in dogs who are seven years or older.

'Disease' sounds scary, but this is almost always a fairly benign illness and it is not contagious.

It affects the nerves that co-ordinate the messages between a dog's eyes, inner-ear, and body - you could say it scrambles them to some degree.

So, in a nutshell, Old Dog Vestibular Disease affects your dog's balance.

Now being able to balance is a pretty fundamental ability, so losing it makes life very difficult, and the symptoms can look pretty scary - and must feel awful for Fido.

If you've ever suffered from a bout of vertigo yourself (or even been really, really, drunk! you'll have some idea of how he's feeling!

Luckily this problem is not nearly as serious as it looks, and most dogs make a full recovery, with little to no treatment.

This condition is also known as.......

'Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome', 'Idiopathic' (meaning 'of no known origin) Old Dog Vestibular Disease'  'Peripheral Vestibular Disease' or even (incorrectly) 'Old Dog Syndrome' 

Here's what you need to know....

Symptoms Of Old Dog Vestibular Disease

The signs of Old Dog Vestibular Disease come on very suddenly, and are pretty dramatic, so it's easy to panic and think that your dog has had a stroke or has brain damage... but the odds of that are much lower!

Symptoms include:

  • Loss of balance - stumbling, staggering, circling, even falling down or rolling around
  • Head tilt - Fido will hold his head oddly, usually tilted at an angle of about 45°
  • Erratic eye movements (Nystagmus) - his eyes can't stay still and may even rotate
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

Now, Fido may not have all of these symptoms but he's likely to have at least two of them. Dizzyness and flickering/erratic eye-movements are the most common.

Of course these symptoms could be signs of a few other, more serious, conditions such as brain injury, tumor or stroke.

There is also another form of this condition which is known as 'Central Vestibular Disease', because it affects the entire central nervous system. It's more serious, but also much less common.

But if your senior dog was seemingly normal and healthy just a short while ago, think 'old dog syndrome' first!

Here's a video that shows you what vestibular disease symptoms look like......

Causes Of Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome

The full name for this problem is 'Idiopathic Peripheral Vestibular Disease'. Quite a mouthful!

The word 'idiopathic' means 'arising spontaneously' and 'from unknown cause'. Both of these definitions usually apply here.

But, sometimes your vet can find a reason for Fido's vestibular upset.

It could be something relatively simple like an ear infection or inflammation, a perforated ear-drum, virus or reaction to a medication.

Or it could be more serious, like polyps, a tumor, brain damage, a central nervous system disorder and so on.

Only a veterinarian can make a diagnosis and after the initial exam he/she will be able to tell you whether there are more tests that Fido needs.

Treating Peripheral Vestibular Disease In Dogs

Old Dog Vestibular Disease is almost always a self-limiting condition - that means that it cures itself given time.

Most dogs will start to improve and symptoms will ease off within 2 to 3 days, and will be totally recovered within a couple of weeks. 

BUT this doesn't mean that you don't need to have him examined by a veterinarian - you do! 

Although chances are good that your dog has the peripheral form of the disease, there are other possibilities.

Only a licensed veterinarian can make an accurate diagnosis.

While there's no 'cure' for this vestibular condition, there are things you can do to help Fido cope with the difficulties he's experiencing.

Depending on what has caused the problem in the first place (if your vet can isolate it) there may some treatment needed for the 'trigger'.

Plus, symptoms of Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome such as nausea and vomiting can be reduced or controlled by medications prescribed by your vet (sort of like the meds you take for motion-sickness).

Obviously if the examination shows any signs that there's something more serious going on, then other treatment options for the underlying issue will be needed.

For dogs with simple idiopathic vestibular disease, the rest of the treatment is just 'supportive care'.

That means helping Fido to manage his day-to-day life which is tricky when he can't balance his body properly and his eyes have trouble focusing.

Helping Your Dog With Vestibular Disease

Here's what you can do to make your dog's life easier:

Keep Him Quiet & Rested As Much As Possible

Staggering and stumbling around is scary for your dog, so try to minimize the space he has to move about.

If Fido is used to being crated and is comfy there, this can really help and you can use the crate more than you normally would.

But for older dogs who don't use a crate, now isn't the time to start. Instead try to confine him to a smaller area, or to one room at a time. 

Help Him To Walk, Eat, Drink & Potty

When he needs to go outdoors to pee/poop, go with your dog and help him to stay upright and find the right spot. 

An older dog could really hurt himself if he falls down steps, or onto a hard surface or walks into a wall, fence or tree.

Protect him from himself until his balance comes back.

Often dogs with vestibular disease don't want to eat because they feel sick. Anti-nausea medicines prescribed by your veterinarian can help with this. 

Also, it can be tricky for Fido to eat even if he wants to, because his eyes flicker and move involuntarily and make it difficult for him to focus. 

Make his meals more appealing by dding some tasty gravy, or a little canned food, to his kibble and encourage him to eat while lying down if he'll co-operate.

If he insists on standing, stay beside him and hold him up if necessary.

Drinking poses the same problems, but your dog MUST drink or he'll get dehydrated, so the same help is needed here.

If he won't/can't drink, then discuss it with your vet - he might want to give Fido some IV fluids to make sure he stays hydrated.

Monitor His Progress & Recovery

The majority of dogs will show signs of improvement within about 72 hours, and be fully recovered within 2 weeks.

But, if your old dog doesn't seem to be any better after a couple of days, or he gets worse or shows other symptoms, get him back to your vet asap.

Long-term Prognosis

The majority of dogs will be fully recovered from a bout of old dog vestibular disease within about 2 weeks.

Usually all symptoms will have faded away, although sometimes the head-tilt or a little loss of co-ordination will linger.

It's rarely enough to cause any real problems and shouldn't impact your senior dog's quality of life.

Once a dog has suffered one go-around with this problem, he has an above-average risk of having another. New episodes are usually similar to the first one in both severity and duration.

Although this isn't ideal, the good news is that IF Fido has another 'episode', you'll know what it is right away and won't feel so panicked.

Plus you'll be able to get him any medications he needs, and know how to help him through those first, difficult, days.

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