Old Dog Vestibular Disease

Old Dog Vestibular Disease can be triggered by a number of things including inner ear problems, a collar related injury, a brain injury or tumor or a central nervous system dysfunction.

However, often there is no clear trigger or underlying issue to be found and the condition arises spontaneously…. and usually resolves itself in the same way.

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 generally 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

You can check out the symptoms of dog stroke, and the differences between a stroke and vestibular disease here….

Is My Dog Having A Stroke?

The signs of Old Dog Vestibular Disease come on very suddenly, and are pretty dramatic.

This means that it’s easy to panic and think that your dog has had a stroke or has brain damage.

Luckily the odds of either of these happening are much lower.

Symptoms of  Peripheral Vestibular Disease in dogs include:

  • Loss of balance – stumbling, staggering, circling, falling down, rolling around
  • Head tilt –  head is held oddly, usually tilted at an angle of about 45°
  • Erratic eye movements – horizontal back & forth movement (may roll too)
  • Nausea and/or vomiting 

Your dog may not have all of these symptoms but he’s likely to have at least two of them.

Loss of balance and Nystagmus (the unusual eye-movements) are the most common.

Severe cases may also produce other, more severe, symptoms such as:

  • Continuous rolling from side to side
  • Excessive thirst (incl. drinking until they throw up)
  • Loss of bladder/bowel control

There is another form of this condition called Central Vestibular Disease. 

It is more serious, is not included in the more common Peripheral or Old Dog Vestibular Disease and shows slightly different symptoms.

The causes of the central type of this disease are also more serious and may include:

  • Brain damage or trauma
  • Brain tumor
  • Systemic infection or inflammation
  • Fungal infection
  • Tick-borne illnesses such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
  • Toxoplasmosis
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Stroke

Symptoms are similar but the Nystagmus (eye movements) may not be exclusively horizontal as they are with the Peripheral form of vestibular disease in dogs.

These eye movements may change when your dog’s head position changes, may be vertical, horizontal, rolling or erratic.

Only a veterinarian can distinguish between the two by running certain tests.

But.. if your senior dog was seemingly normal and healthy just a short while ago, think Peripheral Vestibular Disease first and don’t panic!

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.

So basically Old Dog Vestibular Disease shows up out of the blue for no apparent reason.

Vestibular Disease isn’t solely a condition which affects only senior dogs, but it is most often seen in dogs who are middle aged, or older.

Sometimes your vet can find a reason behind the symptoms.

Causes of canine peripheral vestibular disease may include:

  • Ear infection or inflammation
  • Perforated ear-drum
  • Viral infection
  • Reaction to a medication
  • Injury to neck caused by collar, a fall or some other incident.

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

The peripheral form of Old Dog Vestibular Disease is almost always a self-limiting condition – this 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 two to four weeks.

More severe cases may take up to six weeks to be fully recovered.

BUT this doesn’t mean that you don’t need to have Fido examined by a veterinarian – you do!

Although chances are good that your dog has the peripheral form of the disease, there are other possibilities including Central Vestibular Disease

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’.

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).

Anti-nausea drugs such as Bonine or Gravol may be prescribed or recommended by your vet and these can make your dog feel more comfortable.

Anti-inflammatory medications or antibiotics may be prescribed if your senior dog shows any signs of an ear infection or problem.

Sometimes corticosteroids such as Prednisone can really help reduce the symptoms of vestibular disease if it is caused by inflammation or swelling in the ear, or elsewhere.

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.

Older Yorkshire Terrier

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.

Sometimes using doggie diapers or belly bands can be helpful (especially at night) because a dog who is dizzy and sick often doesn’t notice or respond to the body’s potty cues quickly enough.

But, don’t rely on a belly band or diapers. Make the effort to get  your dog to his/her potty spot regularly and encourage normal potty habits whenever possible.

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.

Some dogs pretty much refuse to eat, or the physical symptoms make it very difficult for them to do so. This stage generally only lasts a few days.

However, to make sure that Fido gets some nutrition during this stage you can try liquid nutritional supplements such as Clinicare for Dogs or Nutrical Nutritional Gel.

Both of these are nutritionally dense and even getting a little of one or other into your dog will give him valuable nutrition.

Your vet may stock one, or both, of these or you can order them online through the links above.

Pediasure (a similarly nutritional liquid for sick infants) can be used in an emergency, but it’s high in sugar and contains dairy, neither of which is good for dogs in general.

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.

Pedialyte contains vital electrolytes so try to give your old boy or girl a little of the unflavored variety as well as water if you can.

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.

Reducing the chances of further episodes……

Although there are no treatments that are guaranteed to prevent further episodes of old dog vestibular disease, there are a few things you can do to help Fido heal completely and possibly reduce the chances of experiencing the whole thing again.

These include:

Giving an Omega 3 EPA & DHA Fish Oil will help your dog’s body to heal and regenerate to it’s full potential

Zyflamend is a natural anti-inflammatory pain killer. You can check with your vet for dosage recommendations.

Give a premium vitamin/mineral supplement, Nupro is one example,  daily to make sure all body systems have the nutrients they need to function properly

Collar related injuries can cause vestibular problems, and an accidental pull or jerk could trigger an episode.

So… it’s best to use a harness rather than a collar when walking your dog if they’ve had Vestibular Disease previously.

Complementary health practices such as Chiropractic care, physiotherapy and acupuncture can all have benefits after the initial recovery period.

Allergies can cause chronic ear infections in dogs which can lead to vestibular episodes. Your vet can help you decide if this might be a problem for your senior dog.

Take things slowly and allow your dog to return to normal activities at their own pace.

Is My Dog Having A Stroke?

Many times the symptoms of vestibular disease are mistaken for stroke symptoms by panicked dog owners.

This isn’t surprising as they can be quite similar and although the odds are in favor of vestibular problems rather than brain issues, a dog can have a stroke.

Here is a quick look at what occurs when a dog has a stroke, and what makes it different from vestibular problems.

Dog Stroke

A stroke is the result of either:

  • A blood clot – called an Isechemic Stroke/Attack
  • A hemorrhage in the brain – called a Hemorrhagic Stroke

A clot, or bleed, can be caused by a range of health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, thyroid problems, injury, inflammation, blood clotting disease and more.

Ear problems in dogs are not a trigger for stroke.

Advanced age can also be the cause of a dog experiencing a stroke.

The symptoms of a stroke in dogs have some similarities to symptoms of vestibular disease, but there are some subtle differences.


Symptoms of Stroke in Dogs

These symptoms are similar to those seen in a vestibular episode, but the unusual eye movements are not exclusively horizontal.

  • Loss of co-ordination
  • Stumbling or falling over
  • Head tilt
  • Abnormal eye movements (may move vertically/horizontally/roll)

These symptoms are not likely to be seen in dogs with vestibular disease:

  • Abnormal eye position (eyes not co-ordinated)
  • Loss of vision
  • Loss of hearing
  • Excessive Drooling
  • Confusion
  • Paralysis
  • Loss of consciousness

A Transient Isechemic Stroke (TIA)

A TIA is a sort of ‘mini-stroke’ and usually happens when blood supply to the brain is decreased due to a blood clot which forms and then either breaks up or moves on.

Once a dog has had one Transient Isechemic Stroke the chance of his having subsequent ones increases. Sometimes a full-blown stroke will occur at a later date.

The symptoms of a TIA could resemble those of vestibular disease and/or a full stroke.

However, a Transient Isechemic Stroke is usually short-lived, normally lasting for thirty minutes to a couple of  hours.

The symptoms of a TIA come on very quickly, and subside very quickly too. 

With Old Dog Vestibular Disease the symptoms generally resolve over a period of days, taking up to two weeks for a dog to return to normal.

With a full stroke symptoms can take weeks or months to lessen and treatment is required to get to that point. Sometimes they can be fatal, or leave long-lasting effects.

Duration of symptoms and degree/speed of recovery is important for diagnosis.

But….. ONLY your vet can make an accurate assessment/diagnosis and this is critical to  making sure  your golden oldie gets the right help and the best chances of making a full recovery.

Any dog experiencing the symptoms on this page (to whatever degree) needs to be examined by a vet as soon as possible.

About Dr. Winnie 76 Articles
My name is Dr. Winnie. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Duke University, a Masters of Science in Biology from St Georges University, and graduated from the University of Pretoria Veterinary School in South Africa. I have been an animal lover and owners all my life having owned a Rottweiler named Duke, a Pekingese named Athena and now a Bull Mastiff named George, also known as big G! I'm also an amateur equestrian and love working with horses. I'm a full-time Veterinarian in South Africa specializing in internal medicine for large breed dogs. I enjoy spending time with my husband, 2 kids and Big G in my free time.Author and Contribturor at SeniorTailWaggers, A Love of Rottweilers, DogsCatsPets and TheDogsBone


  1. This was very helpful–thank you. We have an excellent vet, and he told us much of this, but seeing this information from several sources is re-assuring. Luckily, my dog has only two symptoms. Also no loss of appetite, no nausea. And I’m already doing the things you recommend. Anyway, thanks so much!

  2. I found your article extremely helpful and reassuring. My 11year old Dachshund has some of the symptoms you describe in this article. I have had her to our veterinarian twice now and she is on oral antibiotics. She seems fine at times and then has a spell. She’s always better after resting and in the morning! Thank you for this informative article. I appreciated the opportunity to read it. Thanks again!

  3. Thanks so much for this information. My Lucy had the eye twitch and imbalances when i came home yesterday. If course I panicked thinking she had a stroke. Vet is treating for ear infection and she’s a little worse today. I’m giving meclizine 3 times a day for dizziness. She is eating and im helping her down stairs to go potty. It is frightening but reassuring to see others who have had same problem. She’s such a sweet ole rescued gal of around 15. Thanks again for the information and I pray your pup is doing well.

  4. Our 12 year old dog had these exact symptoms. Vet also said she had an ear infection, so we presumed that was the trigger. She was treated with antibiotics and prednisone, and immediately improved. However, as soon as the prednisone reduced, symptoms came back. We are now out near 8 weeks, and just finished 3rd round of antibiotics, and steady dose of prednisone. Vet said it could be something else, like Lyme disease, but treatment would be the same. She continues to have good days, then bad. Overall is not really any worse. Is there anything else we can do, or how long can this last? Otherwise, she is happy and when not having a really bad spell is eager to go out with us, but just circles and occasionally falls down.

  5. Thank you for the informative article and the video clip of dear Casey. My Bedlington terrier is just14 and has had 3 or 4 ‘turns’ since March this year. (*She’s on treatment for Cushing’s Disease.) She gets unsettled and unsteady then quivers and pants a lot. I try and keep her calm, even swaddling her on occasion and pat and talk to her but the head movements and eye movements continue. Your article explains a lot but as her episodes last around an hour (usually in the middle of the night!) by morning she’s much improved- which leads me to think maybe it’s a TIA after all. Off the the vet, though I’m not sure what they can do.

  6. along with ideas above,,,boil a chicken-and feed/spoon the dog the broth…this way s/he gets liquid if not keen to lap normally , as well as natural nutrition..
    soak kibble in lots of water…
    if constipated, steamed pumkin or squash wll probaby help your dog..
    And-there are some very simple exercises to help correct the head tilt gently…
    good lucjk all going through this!

  7. Thank you for a very thorough article. My springer spaniel is 12.5 yrs old and an active athlete even now. She had two ear infections last winter that were treated and otherwise is a healthy senior. However, one night she vomited all of her dinner about an hour later. Nothing else happened until 3 hours later watching tv together and she got up to get some water and flopped over repeatedly. It was very alarming. Since her mask is black and so are her eyes, I did not notice the erratic eye movements. I had to carry her down a full flight of stairs and out to the yard to do potty (not easy at nearly 40 lb) which we managed but she kept falling over. I got her into bed with me and awhile later she vomited again (yes, in bed). I kept her calm stroking her all night long and she slept. She would not eat or drink that morning. Got to the vet later that day but luckily I had already found your information and suspected this was what she had. The vet confirmed it. She has every one of the symptoms you described. Vet gave her a shot for the nausea which worked within 20 minutes when we got home she indicated she was ravenous! The vet also put her on dramamine for motion sickness for a week. Meanwhile it’s 4 days later, her appetite has returned fully in fact I think she is actually even more hungry than usual, her muscle coordination is better but she is still wobbly, her eye movements have slowed down and she has a slight head tilt. But all through the 4th night and today she has gotten other symptoms: heavy panting and she has pooped loose diarreah all over the house (only on the carpets, naturally). She is not a crate dog, always slept with us, and always always barked to let us know she needed to go out to do business. It’s a holiday weekend here and my vet will not be available until Tuesday. Trying to figure out exactly where I would contain her that would not make her anxious. I’m glad that the prognosis is good for her to make a full recovery but I will no longer be able to take her on our daily trail hike because all the trails here have roots and varying grades and also if this were to come on suddenly while hiking, I would not be able to carry her out of the woods. Ocean swimming is also one of her favorite things– not sure if she’ll be able to
    handle it. Prior to this episode, I have never ever heard of anyone’s dog having this condition. Is it because pets are living longer like people are now, too?

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