Browse our veterinary-reviewed Dog and Cat Illness Guide to learn more about pet health. Always talk to your veterinarian if you have a concern about your pet's symptoms or health.
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Canine Vestibular Disease
The vestibular system controls balance (preventing your dog from falling) with parts in the brain and the ear. Vestibular disease disturbs this system suddenly.
There are two forms of this disease:
- Peripheral: when the balance center in the ear is affected
- Central: when the balance center in the brain is affected
The peripheral form is more common than the central form.
Older dogs are more susceptible to vestibular disease. It is usually not life-threatening and can be resolved over a few days.
- Ear infections
- Trauma to the head
- Nerve damage
- Underactive thyroid
- Toxic drugs
- Sometimes the cause is not known
- Decreased blood flow
- Bleeding on the brain
- Inflammatory diseases
- Head tilted to one side
- Stumbling and falling in the direction of the tilted head
- Tight circling (wide circling may indicate a brain tumor)
- Abnormal eye movements: pupils drifting to the side, then jerking to the middle
- Drooling and vomiting (because of dizziness)
Your veterinarian will do a physical exam of your pet and some of the following:
- CT and MRI scans: to examine the brain
- Radiographs: to examine the middle ear
- Examination of the outer ear: to detect ear infections or tumors
- Blood tests: to rule out thyroid disease
- Urine tests
- BAER test (tests for hearing loss)
Most veterinarians recommend the following treatments for dogs with vestibular disease:
- Hospitalization with IV fluids: in severe cases, this is needed to stabilize the pet until it can eat and walk
- Sedatives: may be given to help relax a very disoriented dog
- Medications: for nausea and vomiting
- Antibiotics: for ear infections
- Surgery: to flush out the ear in the case of a middle ear infection
If the condition is idiopathic (no known cause), there is no known preventative measure.
For other causes that are preventable, avoid traumatic incidents by keeping your dog on a leash or in an enclosed area. Keep your dog vaccinated and avoid exposure to poisons.
If there is no major underlying cause (idiopathic), the prognosis is very good. A lot of pets show improvement within a few days. Some will have a slight head tilt and may wobble for the rest of their life.
However, if there is something directly causing the vestibular disturbance, the prognosis depends on the cause. Possible causes include:
- Underactive thyroid: with medication, there is a good prognosis
- Toxic drugs: with immediate discontinuation, there is a good prognosis, but it may cause life-long deafness
- Polyps: with surgical removal, there is a good prognosis
- Cancer: poor prognosis
As these causes are from brain-related issues and there may be damage to the brain, the prognosis is generally poor.
Medically Reviewed by Sara Ochoa, DVM