Balance Problems in Dogs

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Everyone loses his footing and stumbles once in a while, including your dog. However, if your dog is suffering from balance problems such as circling, staggering or falling, the problem is likely not in his feet, but in his head. When something's not right with your dog's vestibular system he likely has vestibular disease, affecting his balance.

The Vestibular Apparatus

Like you, your dog has a vestibular apparatus, the equipment his brain uses to understand his orientation to the earth and how his body should respond. Located in his middle ear, there are a variety of parts to his vestibular apparatus, including fluid-filled semicircular canals, tiny hair cells and receptors that perceive rotational movement, gravity and acceleration. All of these parts work together to inform his brain and his muscles about how he should be moving in response to his environment. When something is not right in the vestibular apparatus, it's known as vestibular disease, causing your dog to have difficulty orienting himself properly.

Signs of Vestibular Disease

Balance problems are only one potential clue that something's not right with your dog's vestibular apparatus. Other symptoms of vestibular disease include:

  • Head tilting 
  • Circling 
  • Nystagmus, or jerking or back and forth/up and down eye movements 
  • Staggering, stumbling and loss of coordination 
  • Falling 
  • Disorientation 
  • Reluctance to walk 
  • Loss of appetite from nausea 
  • Vomiting 
  • Motion sickness 

Types of Vestibular Disease

There are two types of vestibular disease:

  • Central vestibular disease, which develops from the central nervous system
  • Peripheral vestibular disease, which causes the nerves connecting the inner ear and the brain
    to become irritated, causing balance problems and other symptoms.

Central vestibular disease is more serious but fortunately, is relatively unusual compared to the far more common peripheral vestibular disease.

Causes of Vestibular Disease

Central vestibular disease can be caused by infection, brain trauma or bleeding, inflammatory disease and cancer. Peripheral vestibular disease may be the result of ongoing or frequent middle and inner ear infections, head trauma, stroke, hypothyroidism, polyps or tumors, stroke and a variety of medication including antibiotics. Sometimes no cause is determined, known as idiopathic vestibular disease. Other dogs are born with the condition, known as congenital vestibular disease.

Treating Vestibular Disease

Treating the root cause of vestibular disease offers the best chance to address the condition. If an infection is causing your dog's balance problems, the vet will prescribe antibiotics to clear up the infection. If he's experiencing nausea or vomiting, motion sickness medication may be helpful. Sedatives may help the dog who's experiencing disorientation or poor balance to relax. In more extreme cases, hospitalization for supportive therapy, such as intravenous fluids, may be necessary.

Prognosis for Vestibular Disease

Typically, idiopathic vestibular disease clears up on its own, often resolving in a couple of weeks. Sometimes a dog will experience residual effects, such as a bit of a wobble or head-tilting. A puppy born with vestibular disease usually adapts to the condition so it doesn't impact him too much as he ages. Peripheral vestibular disease usually has a favorable outcome when the cause is treated. Central vestibular disease may affect the brain stem, resulting in a poorer prognosis.

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