All mammals have a vestibular system that maintains a sense of balance and spatial orientation in the brain. The vestibular (inner ear) organs provide the brain with information about body position and direction so that your dog knows when they are right-side up, upside down, turning, falling, or accelerating. When the vestibular system is affected, your dog may feel disoriented, unsteady, and queasy. Fortunately, vestibular disorder is usually not serious. Read on to learn more.
Causes of Vestibular Disorder in Dogs
There are two forms of vestibular disorder: the central form and the peripheral form. The central form is very rare in pets and more serious, and originates inside of the nervous system.
The peripheral form originates outside of the central nervous system when there is irritation to the nerves connecting the inner ear to the brain. Oftentimes, the cause of a dog’s peripheral vestibular disorder is unknown, in which case it's called idiopathic. However, some causes may include:
- Inner and middle ear infections
- Perforated eardrum from harsh ear cleanings
- Trauma from head injury, stroke, tumors, benign mass, polyps, hypothyroidism, or meningoencephalitis
- Ototoxicity (or ear poisoning) from certain types of antibiotics
- Congenital defect (a defect from the dog’s genetic sources) -- predisposed breeds include the German Shepherd, Doberman Pinscher, English Cocker Spaniel, Akita, Beagle, Smooth Fox Terrier, and Tibetan Terrier
- Old age
Vestibular Disorder Symptoms
Signs of vestibular disorder can include:
- Spinning or walking in circles
- Stumbling or staggering
- Loss of coordination
- Head tilting or head shaking
- Standing with an exaggerated wide stance
- Falling or rolling to the side
- Involuntary drifting or jerking eye movements (known as nystagmus)
- Squinting or strabismus (abnormal eyeball alignment)
- Vomiting and motion sickness (often brought on when riding in a car)
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of thirst
- Choosing to sleep on the floor or other hard surface (reduces vestibular signals)
Treatment for your dog’s vestibular disorder will depend on the specific diagnosis. Your veterinarian should rule out other conditions such as stroke or hypothyroidism before proceeding with any treatment. An examination by your veterinarian will also help to identify any underlying and treatable condition -- such as an ear infection -- that is affecting the inner ear.
If your dog is diagnosed with the more common peripheral form of vestibular disorder, your veterinarian may prescribe medication to treat your dog’s nausea while suggesting that you wait and see if the problem will go away on its own. It often does within two weeks, and you can help in the recovery by easing your dog’s vertigo and offering support.
- Provide a quiet place. A dog with heightened motion sensitivity can become easily startled by action around them. Set up your dog’s bed, bowls, and toys away from loud televisions and high-traffic areas of the house.
- Provide good light. Make sure that your dog has plenty of light to see as they move around the house, play, eat, drink, or rest. Good lighting will help your dog use their surroundings to confirm signals sent from the brain about head and body position.
- Provide proprioceptive support. Providing your pet with a tightly-fitted object to nestle against can help them to feel properly oriented and planted in space. You can create an ideal object by rolling up a thick blanket and snuggling it around your dog in a C-shape.
- Do not carry your dog. If your dog is having trouble moving around, you may be tempted to help by carrying them. This should be avoided. In order to retrain the vestibular system, your dog needs to navigate their surroundings on their own. Since the paw pads provide necessary sensory information, walking will help them navigate themselves. You can help your dog to walk on their own by placing your hands on each side of the body and applying pressure if the dog begins to tilt. You can also support your dog with a towel or sling under the body.
If your dog needs more intense treatment because they can't more or eat without vomiting, an IV with fluids and injectibale medications can help them through.
A functioning vestibular system is vital to the survival of all mammals. It keeps us safe by preserving balance, orientation, and clear vision. If you suspect that your pet is suffering from vestibular disorder, contact your veterinarian.
More on Dog Health and Behavior
Reading Dog Body Language
Understanding Dog Behaviors
This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.