Vestibular Syndrome is a fairly common medical condition that primarily affects older dogs.
It’s a condition that can present itself when your dog reaches 10 years of age or older.
Generally, this is the case and it will be the focal point of this article, however, it is important to recognize the signs as old age comes at different times for different breeds of dogs.
It can affect younger dogs too so it is always worthwhile familiarising yourself with any condition that can occur for any of our dogs.
Firstly, it is an upsetting condition for an owner to observe in their much-loved pet dog. It often presents it’s self quite quickly. all of a sudden in some cases.
It is a non-progressive disturbance of balance with quite a pronounced head tilt and often the dogs’ eyes will flicker from side to side and this is known as nystagmus.
In simple terms, you may hear it referred to as a stroke or idiopathic vestibular syndrome, to give it the correct medical term.
To the untrained eye, the symptoms may mimic serious, life-threatening conditions such as a stroke or a brain tumor.
The good news is that this condition, which is described by veterinarians as fairly common, typically disappears in a matter of days.
The Three Broad Types Of Vestibular Disease In Dogs:
- Idiopathic Vestibular Disease
- Inner Ear Disease
- Central Vestibular Disease
The most common type is idiopathic and this means that it can happen all of a sudden and without warning and this can be incredibly upsetting to see as we touched on earlier.
It’s a great shock to us a dog lover when we see our pet in distress like this and our inner need to care kicks in but we also feel helpless.
Inner Ear Disease can be caused by bacteria which can cause the infection that leads to the syndrome and this can be a much slower route to the condition and it can also be a result of tumors or trauma to the dog’s head.
Brain related illness can ensue and this can also be caused by tumors, trauma to the head, inflammations, infections but although this is by far the most serious form of vestibular disease, it is, thankfully, much rarer.
When there is Vestibular Dysfunction such as with Idiopathic Vestibular Syndrome, it is often commonly related to the peripheral vestibular system that is located deep in the inner ear which involves receptor organs or the entire centralized nervous system.
This is primarily the balance control system that is centralized within your dog’s brain stem and the cerebellum.
What Is The Vestibular System?
Essentially, the vestibular system controls your dogs’ balance, posture and the body’s orientation in space which changes in the position and movement of the body and eyes depending on the movement and position of the head.
Balance sensors in your dogs head will then detect the position of the head, be it when the animal is moving or standing still, and this information then converts back to electrical signals that get passed to the brain which in turn sends messages to the muscle groups of the body that control movement of limbs and this also includes eyes, and this then controls the visual focus that is needed for your dog to know where they are going.
Because the balance sensors in the brain are very close to the area in the brain that controls vomiting, dogs that suffer from disturbances to their vestibular system often feel sick and are indeed nauseous as a result of this as it is very similar to Vertigo in humans.
Clinical Signs Of Vestibular Syndrome
Generally, the signs of vestibular syndrome or a disturbance to your dogs’ vestibular system are most apparent in the first 24-48 hours of the condition.
Signs you will notice and things to look out for include:
- Head Tilt
- Loss Of Co-Ordination
- Abnormal Eye Movement (Nystagmus)
- Loss Of Balance or appearing dizzy
- Panting or Confusion
- Difficulty Eating Or Drinking
- Excessive Drooling
- Signs Of Hearing Loss ( dog not responding to recall. The Balance sensors are very close in proximity to hearing sensors)
- Drooping of Facial Muscles.
There are many nerves that control facial muscles and they can be affected by the condition and can often lead to the assumption that your dog has had a stroke, however that is a completely different medical condition.
Obviously, if you see any of these characteristics appear in your dog then the first port of call has to be your Veterinarian.
From here, they will perform a full examination of your dog including a full neurological examination in order to determine a diagnosis of vestibular syndrome, of that is the case.
From this, they will then determine whether the condition is peripheral or central.
Sometimes, depending on the outcome they will need to further tests such as bloods, swabs, x-rays or a T scan or MRI and they may also need to take fluids from the spinal cord.
If an underlying cause can be identified such as an ear infection, then the condition can improve with medication.
However, if there is irreversible damage to the dogs’ balance sensors then the head tilt and loss of balance may continue.
Recovery can take weeks or months depending on each case.
If the cause was idiopathic then the condition then in most dogs that already have good health will adapt easily and recover well within three days or so.
Medical Treatments For Vestibular Syndrome Include:
Anti Nausea Medication Prescribed By Your Veterinary Surgeon.
Other Medications may include sedation, antibiotics, and steroids depending on the cause
Possible hospital stays for the dog if it is deemed severe enough.
Supporting Your Dog At Home
It takes time and patience and it is important that you may need to help your dog eat and drink and this may include moving or holding bowls or hand feeding.
Changing their diet to easier food like chicken and fish which is much tastier may help them want to eat as well as adding meat juices from cooked meat to their dry food if they prefer that.
This is especially good as it adds extra hydration into their diet.
Try to provide a quiet area in the home for them that is away from any hustle and bustle daily home life.
Softer bedding with more support around them. Dogs especially like this as it gives them support and a feeling of containment.
Try to avoid carrying them, which can be easier and tempting to do so with smaller dogs, because their brain needs to recalibrate any sensory information from their paws when they walk.
Try to support them with a harness instead of holding them.
Complementary Therapies are also useful and once clinical signs have eased, they are well worth exploring:
- Herbal Supplements
The most important takeaway from all of this is that is you ever see or sense something is not right with your dog for any reason, you must take them to your veterinary practice as soon as possible.
They are the experts and they will be able to help and advise the next step.