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What is Vestibular Disease in Dogs?

Vestibular disease often affects older dogs, and is commonly referred to as ‘old dog disease’ or ‘old dog vestibular syndrome’. The vestibular system is located in a dog’s brain and links to areas in the inner and middle ear. The vestibular system is responsible for maintaining normal balance and helps your dog decipher what is up and what is down. Vestibular disease in dogs is defined as a sudden, non-progressive disturbance of balance. This disease can affect dogs, cats and even humans.


For a pet owner first witnessing vestibular symptoms in a dog, it can be quite terrifying. A dog may suddenly lose his balance, have jerking eye movements, and tilt his head to the side. He may fall over repeatedly and have trouble standing and walking, or act as if he is extremely dizzy like he just got off a merry-go-round. These are episodes that should pass within a short time. 

If you see your pup having these symptoms, help keep him stable so he doesn’t hurt himself by falling into objects. Give your dog a hug, continue to hold him and speak calmly and reassuringly to him until he regains his balance. Some other, more subtle, symptoms of vestibular disease in dogs include:

  • Unwillingness to eat or drink
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Standing with a wide stance
  • Lack of coordination
  • Circling in one direction or rolling
  • Wanting to sleep on hard surfaces

The symptoms of vestibular disease in dogs will appear immediately and without warning. There are no indicators that will let you know an episode is about to occur. It is extremely jarring and worrisome for pet owners to watch their dog experience symptoms. However, if you are aware of the disease and its symptoms, you can take the appropriate steps to see a vet and determine the cause.

Causes & Treatment 

There are multiple causes of vestibular disease in dogs. The disease most commonly affects older, large breed dogs, but can also affect young and small dogs. Possible causes include:

  • Infections of the inner and middle ear
  • Drugs that negatively affect the inner and middle ear
  • Injury or trauma 
  • Hypothyroidism

When none of these causes are present, it is called idiopathic vestibular syndrome. In cases of idiopathic vestibular syndrome, episodes will usually diminish over 7 to 10 days. Idiopathic vestibular syndrome is the form that most commonly affects older dogs. Your vet will come to a diagnosis based on clinical signs and symptoms, blood and urine tests, and occasionally x-rays, MRIs, and CT scans.

Underlying causes can typically be treated. For ear infections, antibiotics are usually prescribed. For hypothyroidism, your dog will likely be put on thyroid medication which will clear up the vestibular disease symptoms, help them lose weight, and clear up associated skin conditions. Vestibular disease symptoms usually clear up fairly quickly after treatment but can persist for life for some pets.

When Should You Visit the Vet?

When you first see your pet experiencing the vertigo-like symptoms of vestibular disease, your first instinct may be to get to the emergency vet. But, pause. If your regular vet can squeeze in an appointment for your pet within a day or two, this should be adequate time for diagnosis and treatment. Vestibular disease in dogs does not usually warrant an emergency visit, unlike ingesting a poisonous substance, but should be dealt with as soon as possible.

The prognosis for Dogs with Vestibular Disease

For dogs with vestibular disease caused by a short-term ailment, such as an ear infection, recovery is expected within a week or so. For dogs that contract idiopathic vestibular syndrome, symptoms and episodes may last the rest of their lives. On the bright side, your dog isn’t experiencing pain during episodes, though they may get nausea and some stomach upset. The best thing you can do to remedy the situation, in this case, is to make your dog’s living space safe and comfortable. Remove furniture and objects with sharp corners that he could fall into while in a wobbly spell. Add more padded and soft surfaces to your pet’s sleeping areas. While he’s awake, keep plenty of lights on so he can see where he is going. Block off stairways that he could fall down. For small dogs, avoid the temptation to pick them up. The more they can get around on their own, the faster they may recover from the disease.

Vestibular disease in dogs is a frightening affair, but when you are armed with information about the symptoms and causes, you can take action to seek veterinary assistance. Your vet will rule out underlying causes and get to the root of the problem. They can help provide you with treatment to get your dog feeling better again. 

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