Vestibular Disease in Dogs

icon July 10, 2024

Vestibular disease in dogs is a disorder that affects the vestibular system, which is responsible for maintaining balance and coordinating head and eye movements. This condition can be alarming for pet owners due to its sudden onset and dramatic symptoms. Understanding the disease, its causes, symptoms, and treatments is crucial for effectively managing it and ensuring the well-being of affected dogs.

What Causes Vestibular Disease in Dogs?

Vestibular disease can be categorized into two main types: central and peripheral. The central type involves the central nervous system, specifically the brainstem and cerebellum, while the peripheral type affects the inner ear and vestibular nerve.

Peripheral Vestibular Disease:

  • Idiopathic Vestibular Disease:

    Also known as "Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome," it is the most common form and typically affects older dogs. The cause is unknown.

  • Ear Infections:

    Chronic otitis media or interna (middle or inner ear infections) can lead to vestibular symptoms.

  • Ototoxic Drugs:

    Certain medications, such as aminoglycoside antibiotics, can damage the structures of the inner ear.

  • Trauma:

    Head injuries can affect the vestibular system.

  • Hypothyroidism:

    An underactive thyroid gland can sometimes contribute to vestibular dysfunction.

Central Vestibular Disease:

  • Brain Tumors:

    Growths in the brain can compress or invade the areas involved in balance.

  • Infections:

    Conditions like meningitis or encephalitis can affect the brainstem and cerebellum.

  • Inflammatory Diseases:

    Diseases such as granulomatous meningoencephalitis (GME) can target the central nervous system.

  • Vascular Events:

    Strokes or other vascular incidents can disrupt the blood supply to the brain regions responsible for balance.

Vestibular Disease in Dogs Symptoms

Symptoms of vestibular disease are often sudden and can be distressing to witness. Common signs include:

  • Head Tilt: One of the hallmark symptoms is a noticeable tilt of the head to one side.
  • Loss of Balance: Dogs may stumble, fall, or walk in circles.
  • Nystagmus: Involuntary, rapid eye movements that can be horizontal, vertical, or rotary.
  • Ataxia: Uncoordinated movements and an inability to stand or walk normally.
  • Nausea and Vomiting: Due to dizziness and disorientation.
  • Circling: Dogs may walk in circles repeatedly.
  • Disorientation: Dogs may appear confused or anxious.

Vestibular Disease in Dogs Treatment

The treatment for vestibular disease depends on the underlying cause and severity of symptoms. Here are common approaches:

Peripheral Vestibular Disease:

  • Supportive Care:

    Most cases of idiopathic vestibular disease resolve on their own within a few days to weeks. Supportive care includes keeping the dog comfortable, hydrated, and well-nourished.

  • Medications:

    Anti-nausea medications (like meclizine) can help control vomiting and vertigo. Antibiotics may be prescribed for ear infections.

  • Thyroid Medication:

    If hypothyroidism is the cause, thyroid hormone replacement therapy is necessary.

Central Vestibular Disease:

  • Treating the Underlying Cause:

    This may involve surgery for tumors, antibiotics for infections, or anti-inflammatory medications for conditions like GME.

  • Symptomatic Treatment:

    Similar to peripheral disease, medications to control nausea and vertigo can improve the dog's comfort.

Vestibular Disease in Dogs Home Treatment

While veterinary care is essential, there are steps pet owners can take at home to support a dog with vestibular disease:

Safe Environment:
Ensure the dog's living area is free of obstacles that could cause injury. Use baby gates to block off stairs.

Assistive Devices:
Harnesses or slings can help support the dog when walking.

Comfortable Bedding:
Provide a soft, easily accessible bed to reduce the risk of falls.

Feeding Assistance:
Hand-feed the dog or elevate food and water bowls to make eating and drinking easier.

Encourage fluid intake to prevent dehydration, especially if the dog is vomiting.
Also Read: How Much Water Do Dogs Need To Drink

What to Feed a Dog with Vestibular Disease

Diet plays an essential role in the recovery process. Dogs with vestibular disease may have difficulty eating due to nausea or balance issues. Here are some tips:

Small, Frequent Meals:
Offer smaller meals more frequently to prevent nausea and ensure adequate nutrition.

Palatable Food:
Highly palatable, easily digestible food can encourage eating. Consider wet food or adding warm water to dry kibble to enhance aroma and texture.

Ensure the dog stays hydrated. Offering broth or water-rich foods can help.

Nutritional Supplements:
In some cases, supplements like omega-3 fatty acids can support overall health and recovery.

How Long Do Vestibular Episodes Last in Dogs?

The duration of vestibular episodes varies. In cases of idiopathic vestibular disease, most dogs begin to show improvement within 72 hours, with significant recovery occurring over several weeks. Complete resolution can take up to three weeks. For cases with an underlying cause, the duration depends on the effectiveness of treatment and the nature of the condition.

Are Dogs with Vestibular Disease in Pain?

Vestibular disease itself is not typically painful. However, the associated symptoms, such as nausea and disorientation, can cause significant discomfort and anxiety. Dogs may appear distressed due to the sudden loss of balance and coordination. Providing a calm, supportive environment and appropriate medical care can alleviate much of this distress.

Can Vestibular Disease Kill a Dog?

Vestibular disease itself is rarely fatal. However, the underlying cause can be life-threatening, especially in cases of central vestibular disease due to tumors, severe infections, or strokes. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment are crucial in these cases. In idiopathic peripheral vestibular disease, the prognosis is generally good, with most dogs making a full recovery.

Should You Put a Dog Down with Vestibular Disease?

Deciding to euthanize a dog with vestibular disease depends on several factors, including the dog's overall health, quality of life, and the underlying cause of the disease. For idiopathic vestibular disease, euthanasia is rarely necessary as most dogs recover with supportive care. However, if the vestibular disease is due to a severe, untreatable condition causing significant suffering, euthanasia may be considered a humane option. It is essential to consult with a veterinarian to assess the situation and make an informed decision.


Vestibular disease in dogs can be a frightening experience for both pets and their owners. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options is crucial for managing the condition and ensuring the best possible outcome. While the disease itself is rarely fatal and often resolves with time and supportive care, underlying causes, particularly in central vestibular disease, require prompt and effective treatment. With proper care, most dogs can recover from vestibular disease and return to a happy, healthy life.

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