Vestibular Disease in Dogs

By M.B. Lachlei

If your dog is staggering around and his eyes are moving strangely, he may have vestibular disease, or what is often called "old dog vestibular disease." Not only is it treatable, but it is likely your dog will recover on his own.

What is Vestibular Disease?

Vestibular disease is a condition that affects the dog's vestibular system. Vestibular system is how mammals maintain their sense of balance. The vestibular system comprises the middle and inner ear as well as portions of the brain. With vestibular disease, your dog may experience a sudden onset. He may stumble around, have a sudden loss in balance, his eyes may move in a jerky fashion, his head may tilt, and he may lean or fall in one direction.

Types of Vestibular Disease

Types of vestibular disease include central and peripheral. The central form of vestibular disease, which is less common, deals with parts of the cerebellum and the vestibular nuclei in the brain stem. With the peripheral vestibular disease, it deals with the vestibular portion of each cranial nerve eight as it passes through the petrous temporal bone. Both have distinct causes.

What Causes Peripheral Vestibular Disease?

Although peripheral vestibular disease may look like a stroke, it is not the same disease. There are many potential causes for peripheral vestibular disease including an ear infection, hypothyroidism, drugs that affect sense of balance, and what is called idiopathic vestibular syndrome. Ear infections and hypothyroidism can be treated. The drugs that cause problems within the ear usually are given at higher dosages and can cause deafness. When the amount is reduced or the medication is stopped, the vestibular disease usually disappears. In terms of idiopathic vestibular syndrome, veterinarians do not know what causes it, but it seems to affect older dogs.

What Causes Central Vestibular Disease in Dogs?

Central vestibular disease can be caused by a host of conditions. Encephalitis, brain tumors, vascular infarctions, or strokes, and the drug metronidazole can all cause vestibular disease in dogs. Encephalitis is the most common cause, followed by brain tumors. With vascular infarctions, the dog usually improves within a week, and in fact, the dog may recover completely. Should this happen, you will want your veterinarian to evaluate your dog for other diseases that may predispose your dog to having strokes.

Prognosis for Vestibular Disease

If your dog suffers from peripheral vestibular disease, the prognosis usually is good. Your dog may recover on his own, especially if it is geriatric vestibular disease. If it is an ear infection or a particular medication, your dog may need to be treated. In the case of central vestibular disease, your veterinarian will be able to recommend a course of treatment for your dog.