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One minute your pup is fine, then without warning, they circle, tilt their head to the side, stumble a few steps and collapse onto the floor. Is it a seizure, a stroke? Probably not. It's most likely vestibular disease. Here’s what you need to know about vestibular disease in dogs.
Vestibular disease affects your dog's inner and middle ear sensory receptors, which maintain an animal's balance.³ Vestibular structures send information to the brain about where the body is in space — whether it's moving, standing, sitting, leaning, or falling. When the vestibular system functions correctly, your dog can run, jump, balance, and live an action-packed life.
Vestibular disease is often referred to as idiopathic, meaning the cause of the condition is unknown. Sometimes it can be attributed to ear infections, a reaction to certain antibiotics, or head injury.³ Some dogs seem to have a genetic predisposition for the disease.
It's often referred to as "old dog vestibular syndrome," since it's more common in older dogs, but the disease can occur in dogs of any age and breed. Luckily, vestibular disease is not life-threatening, and symptoms typically go away as the vestibular system heals itself.
The symptoms of vestibular disease are easy to spot, but the disorder is often mistaken for a seizure, stroke, or brain tumor. Luckily, it's not nearly as severe as any of those conditions.
Symptoms come on without warning. You should take them to the vet for a proper diagnosis if your dog displays any of the following⁴:
● Walking in circles
● Standing with an unusually wide stance
● Tilting of the head, which can range from slight to extreme
● Falling or rolling to one side
● Acting dizzy
● Drifting or darting eye movements
● Squinting or another abnormal eye positioning
● Stumbling or lack of coordination
● Shaking head
Look for other behavioral changes, too. Does your dog love to ride in the back seat, but suddenly begins experiencing motion sickness? Are they lying on their belly to drink from the water bowl? These could be signs of vestibular disease. Luckily, vestibular disease typically goes away on its own after a few days. If symptoms don't begin to improve after 72 hours, this may be a sign of something more serious.³
Your vet will conduct a physical examination of your dog's ear to determine which area is affected.⁵ They may take blood samples, ear samples, and other specimens to rule out infections and viruses. An X-ray may be suggested to rule out physical damage to your dog's ears.⁵
Additional testing — such as digital imaging like an MRI or spinal tap — may be required if your dog doesn’t have an infection. A biopsy may be suggested if a polyp or tumor is found inside your dog’s ears to determine if the growth is cancerous.
Believe it or not, this is very uncommon. Usually, vestibular disease is treated with medications like antibiotics. Your vet will work with you to rehabilitate your dog to regain their balance over several weeks.
Once you’ve received a diagnosis from your vet, you should follow their care guidance closely. If possible, take your dog to a veterinary rehabilitation center. Here are some of the care instructions you may be given by your veterinary care team.
Your vet will prescribe anti-nausea medication if your dog is vomiting or too nauseous to eat.⁶ You may have to bring your pup food and water closer to where they are resting, and you should consider switching their food to something easy to eat and digest. It’s important to note that your dog needs to eat and drink enough water, or they’ll become sicker.⁶ A good option to help them may be to elevate their food and water bowls so they don't have to reach their head down too far.
Dogs need time to recalibrate their vestibular system by walking on their own. You can help them walk by placing your hands on either side of their body. Invest in a boosting harness to help guide and support them, especially during potty breaks and while navigating steps.⁴
Dizziness caused by vestibular disease can lead to accidents, so limit the amount of space through which your dog wanders in your home. Keep them away from stairs and clear the floor of clutter that your pet could trip over.
Time and rest are key to your dog’s recovery. If your dog has trouble sleeping, try putting a rolled-up blanket or towel under their head for support. Spend time on the floor with them while their world is all topsy-turvy.
Vestibular disease in dogs is not life-threatening. Be sure to keep them cared for during recovery. Provide love and support for them, and they'll be back to their fun-loving self in no time.
Keeping your pup happy and healthy is your priority, especially as they age. Vestibular disease is common, treatable, and not a death sentence for your dog. However, it can be costly to treat if you don’t have pet insurance. Consider investing in a dog insurance policy with MetLife¹ to help you save money during the process of getting a diagnosis.²
¹ Pet Insurance offered by MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions LLC is underwritten by Independence American Insurance Company (“IAIC”), a Delaware insurance company, headquartered at 485 Madison Avenue, NY, NY 10022, and Metropolitan General Insurance Company (“MetGen”), a Rhode Island insurance company, headquartered at 700 Quaker Lane, Warwick, RI 02886, in those states where MetGen’s policies are available. MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions LLC is the policy administrator authorized by IAIC and MetGen to offer and administer pet insurance policies. MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions LLC was previously known as PetFirst Healthcare, LLC and in some states continues to operate under that name pending approval of its application for a name change. The entity may operate under an alternate, assumed, and/or fictitious name in certain jurisdictions as approved, including MetLife Pet Insurance Services LLC (New York and Minnesota), MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions Agency LLC (Illinois), and such other alternate, assumed, or fictitious names approved by certain jurisdictions.
² Provided all terms of the policy are met. Application is subject to underwriting review and approval. Like most insurance policies, insurance policies issued by IAIC and MetGen contain certain deductibles, co-insurance, exclusions, exceptions, reductions, limitations, and terms for keeping them in force. For costs, complete details of coverage and exclusions, and a listing of approved states, please contact MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions LLC.
³ “Vestibular Disease in Dogs,” VCA Hospitals
⁴ “Treatment for Vestibular Disease in Dogs,” Carolina Veterinary Specialist: Rock Hill
⁵ “Vestibular Disease,” Rehab Vet
⁶ “Vestibular Disease in Dogs: The Essential Guide,” Our Pets Health