Treatment for Vestibular Disease in Dogs

Two dogs are sleeping together.
Two dogs are sleeping together. (Image: Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Your dog's ears are amazing tools, able to move to enhance his already keen hearing. Though he hears better than you, like you, he has a vestibular apparatus, the pieces and parts of his middle ear that help keep him oriented to the earth. If he is having trouble with his vestibular apparatus, he will have a difficult time understanding what's up or down. Timely veterinary treatment will help him navigate this challenging condition.

The Vestibular Apparatus Keeps Him Grounded

When something is not right with a dog's vestibular apparatus, he'll show some alarming symptoms. Head tilting is common, and he may appear to be intoxicated, stumbling, falling and circling. His eyes may dart back and forth or up and down, or even move in circles. Since his orientation isn't right, it's not unusual for a dog with vestibular disease to become nauseous and vomit. Central vestibular disease, which occurs because of an abnormality in the brain, is less common than peripheral vestibular disease, which happens due to a problem with the nerves in the inner ear. Central vestibular disease may be caused by a stroke, infection or tumor. The more typical peripheral form is usually caused by an infection or inflammation of the middle or inner ear or is idiopathic. Hypothyroidism also can cause peripheral and central vestibular disease.

The Vet: Diagnostics and Supportive Care

The signs of vestibular disease warrant a visit to the vet for treatment as well as to learn what's causing his problems. The vet will review your dog's symptoms and medical history, as well as run diagnostic tests to include blood chemistry profiles, urinalysis and imaging to include an MRI or a CT. Depending on the severity of his condition, he may need to spend some time in the hospital to get supportive care, such as fluids and other medication, until he's able to eat and walk on his own.

Home Care

If the vestibular disease is idiopathic, treatment and recovery will focus on relieving the symptoms, often done at home. Medication is helpful to minimize the effects of motion sickness; sedatives are useful if the dog is very disoriented. If the vet has determined a cause for the disturbance, its treatment also will be part of the recovery process. For example, if the dog has an inner ear infection, antibiotics likely will be part of his treatment plan.

Beyond Vestibular Disease

The first 24 to 48 hours tend to be the most difficult for the dog with vestibular disease. Generally, dogs tend to improve around the third day of their affliction, and if the cause of the problem isn't very serious, they continue to improve. Usually, stumbling and head-tilting begin to disappear in a week to 10 days. By the end of three weeks, most dogs are almost fully recovered, though there may be a mild wobble or head tilt that remains forever. A dog who isn't improving after a week should see the vet for additional care. The ultimate prognosis for a dog with vestibular disease depends on its root cause and responsiveness to treatment.

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