Your dog's ears consist of the externa, the external ear you can view; the media, or middle ear; and the interna, or inner ear. Your dog's vestibular system, located beside the inner ears, regulates his balance and his relationship to objects in the world. Dogs experiencing inner ear disorders often become disoriented or dizzy, a condition known as labyrinthitis. Treatment depends on the cause of the disorder.
Perhaps the most common inner ear disorder, otitis interna results from inner ear inflammation, generally from a bacterial infection. Symptoms are similar to those of otitis externa, or middle ear inflammation. Besides pawing the ears or tilting or shaking the head, an affected dog might experience trouble chewing or become uncoordinated. A severely affected dog might vomit or exhibit facial paralysis, the inability to move parts or all of the face. Your vet will conduct tests to determine the location and type of bacteria or fungus affecting your dog. Aggressive antibiotic therapy might be required; relapse and the necessity for surgically draining the ear are possibilities.
Hypothyroidism, or insufficient thyroid hormone circulating in the bloodstream, can cause inner ear disorder symptoms. This results when the dog's thyroid glands, located in his neck, aren't producing enough of the hormone. Your vet will prescribe thyroid medication, which your dog will probably have to take for the rest of his life.
Owners watching their elderly dog go through a bout of vestibulitis might assume he's suffering from a stroke. That's a possibility, so a trip to the emergency vet is necessary. However, if your vet diagnoses your old pal with vestibulitis, there's a good chance he'll be back to relative normality within a week or so. Symptoms of vestibulitis include walking in circles, falling to one side, head-tilting and involuntary eye movements. While vestibulitis sometimes goes by the moniker "old dog disease," it can affect canines of any age. With a vestibulitis diagnosis, no real treatment exists other than keeping your dog safe and comfortable until the issue resolves.
If your dog develops symptoms of inner ear disorder and hasn't been treated for an ear infection or exhibited signs of vestibulitis, your vet must look for other causes. Head trauma can cause similar symptoms, as can poisoning. Both require immediate veterinary attention to possibly save your dog. Dogs suffering from brain tumors might experience symptoms of inner ear problems. Long-term antibiotic treatment can result in labyrinthitis.
By Jane Meggitt
Vestibular Disorders Association: Vestibular Disease in Dogs and Cats
petMD: Otitis Media and Otitis Interna in Dogs
WebMD: Labyrinthitis and Dizziness in Dogs
Canine Epilepsy Resources: Vestibular Disease
About the Author
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.