As the saying goes, getting old ain't for sissies. That's as true for canines as it is for humans. Vestibulitis, also known as canine vestibular syndrome, usually affects geriatric dogs. Because symptoms resemble those of a stroke, owners might assume the worst, but dogs can recover.
Your dog's vestibular system orients him in time and space. Based in the inner ear, the vestibular system sends signals to the brain, allowing your dog to move and balance. When his vestibular system is out of whack, your dog literally doesn't know if he's up or down, or where to put his feet to walk correctly.
Dogs suffering from vestibulitis can't balance properly, so they might stagger or even fall over. Often an affected dog tilts his head to one side and moves his eyes around, a condition called nystagmus. He might start circling or throw up. Some dogs start rolling across the ground or floor.
Vestibulitis can result from a middle ear infection or a brain tumor. Other causes include hypothyroidism, or insufficient thyroid hormone levels. Topical ear medications can also cause these symptoms, so don't put over-the-counter ear drops in your dog's ears without veterinary approval. In older dogs, vestibulitis is usually idiopathic, meaning there's no known cause.
Your veterinarian will examine your dog's ears with an otoscope, and perform X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging or computed tomography scans to check for brain tumors or lesions. She will also take blood and urine samples for testing.
Senior dogs affected with "old age" vestibulitis usually recover in one to two weeks, although the head tilt might not go away. Your vet might prescribe medication to prevent motion sickness and the subsequent vomiting in your dog. If your dog is diagnosed with an inner ear infection, antibiotics can clear up the problem. Hypothyroidism usually responds to thyroid medication, although treatment might be lifelong. If the vestibulitis results from a tumor, your vet can advise you about whether surgery or chemotherapy will help your pet.
By Jane Meggitt
petMD: "Old Dog" Vestibular Disease
Vestibular Disorders Foundation: Vestibular Disease in Dogs and Cats [PDF]
Avon Animal and Bird Hospital: Old Age Vestibulitis
Mar Vista Animal Hospital: Vestibular Disease
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.