Vertigo in Dogs

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Your dog is getting old. You've noticed that she walks with her head tilted and her eyes seem to be moving kind of ... "funny." Well, she may be suffering with a form of vertigo.

Vertigo By Another Name

Vertigo is the sensation of spinning and dizziness, usually resulting from an infection or inflammation in the vestibular system in the middle and inner ear. The vestibular system regulates a dog's sense of balance, and the issue that causes the vertiginous sensation of swirling or spinning is called vestibular disease.

In dogs, vestibular disease causes the same sense of imbalance as it does in people.

Vestibular disease tends to affect older dogs predominantly. In fact, the condition is often called "old dog vestibular disease." But this nickname isn't fully accurate. Depending on the cause, dogs of any age could contract vestibular disease and experience vertigo.

Peripheral vs. Central Vestibular Disease

Vestibular disease comes in two types: peripheral and central. Peripheral is the more common and can stem from:

  • Chronic or recurrent infections in the

    inner and middle ear

  • Overzealous scratching or cleaning that punctures the eardrum
  • Stroke
  • Polyps
  • Meningoencephalitis, or an infection or inflammation of the brain and its protective tissue 
  • Antibiotics, such as amikacin, gentamicin, neomycin and tobramycin, that affect the ear  
  • Trauma or injury to the ear or head
  • Brain tumors
  • Hypothyroidism, or inadequate production of the thyroid hormone

Loop diuretics, often used to treat congestive heart failure in dogs, can also trigger vestibular disease. Some ear cleaners, when used on a ruptured or damaged eardrum, can also cause inflammation that irritates the vestibular nerves and triggers vestibular disease.

Central vestibular disease is less common than peripheral and usually results from a more serious issue. Causes include:

  • Inflammatory disease
  •  Severe infection
  • Head trauma
  • Brain bleeding 
  • Cancer 

Idiopathic Vestibular Disease

Sometimes vestibular disease occurs suddenly and without a specific cause. When this happens, the condition is called idiopathic vestibular disease, or IVD. The sudden onset and rapid progression of symptoms are key markers of IVD.

Signs of Vestibular Disease

Vestibular disease is generally easy to spot, as clinical signs tend to be obvious. Call your vet immediately if you see any of the following symptoms in your dog:

  • Head tilted at an unusual angle
  • Chronic falling
  • Leaning to one side
  • Circling while walking, typically in one direction
  • Vomiting, which often occurs in acute cases
  • Involuntary rapid movement of the eyeballs
  • "Lazy" eye, or each eye looking in a different direction
  • Uncoordinated gait or swaying of the head or torso

Treating Vestibular Disease

Vestibular disease often goes away on its own, but it's still best to see your veterinarian if you see signs of vestibular disease. With medication, the condition typically abates quickly.

Treatment targets the underlying cause, if one is known. Antibiotics, for example, will clear up an inner or middle ear infection that, once healed, takes the vertigo with it.

Severe cases often warrant a hospital stay with intravenous fluids. Vets often will prescribe medication for nausea and sedatives to keep the dog calm.

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