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My Puppy Is Wobbly & Off Balance, Should I Be Worried? Our Vet Explains

Written by: Dr. Iulia Mihai, DVM MSc (Veterinarian)

Last Updated on April 8, 2024 by Dogster Team

My Puppy Is Wobbly & Off Balance, Should I Be Worried? Our Vet Explains

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Dr. Iulia Mihai Photo

WRITTEN BY

Dr. Iulia Mihai

DVM MSc (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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When your puppy starts moving suddenly as if drunk, they might be experiencing ataxia, or uncoordinated/wobbly walking. Vestibular ataxia makes a dog appear as if they are walking drunk, and they might act like everything is spinning around them.

The vestibular system stabilizes the body in three-dimensional space and contributes to its stable perception. This system is part of the inner ear. The vestibular function is conducted through the three semicircular canals, the utricle, and the saccule. The semicircular canals perceive rotational movements of the head.

If your puppy starts to walk uncoordinatedly, they might have vestibular syndrome, which is a reason for concern, and you should contact your veterinarian. Causes for wobbly walking in dogs include inner or middle ear infections, tumors, cysts, trauma, or stroke.

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What Is Vestibular Syndrome in Dogs?

The vestibular syndrome in dogs is when there is a problem with the vestibular system in the inner ear. It’s part of the nervous system and controls the movements of the eyes, head, and balance. It enables animals and humans to maintain their balance and orient themselves according to the position of the head. The eyes can also follow movement without causing dizziness.

The vestibular system includes:
  • Inner ear
  • Brainstem
  • Vestibulocerebellum (flocculonodular lobe or archicerebellum)
  • Vestibulocochlear (acoustic-vestibular) nerve (a sensory nerve)

If any of these areas are affected, your puppy will show signs of dizziness (vertigo) and will appear to be off balance and wobbly.

vet checking french bulldog ears
Image By:135pixels, Shutterstock

What Are the Clinical Signs of Vestibular Syndrome in Dogs?

A dog with this condition may appear drunk/dizzy and disoriented because they have vertigo. Vestibular disease is sometimes mistaken for a stroke.

The clinical signs of vestibular syndrome in dogs include:
  • Ataxia, or wobbly walking (drunkenness, dizziness, or loss of balance)
  • Falling to one side
  • Head tilt (typically to one side)
  • Inability or unwillingness to stand or walk
  • Nystagmus (rapid involuntary eye movements)
  • Positional strabismus (abnormal position of the eyes)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Face drooping
  • Face paralysis
  • Circling
  • Horner syndrome (a combination of clinical signs affecting only one eye)

What Are the Causes of Vestibular Syndrome in Dogs?

Problems with the vestibular system can come from the inner ear or the brain or both.

The causes are multiple and include:
  • Infections and inflammations (otitis) of the inner ear
  • Infections and inflammations of the middle ear (damaging the sensors in the inner ear)
  • Tumors or cysts that press on a nerve, part of the brain, or the inner ear
  • Trauma and/or injuries of the brain
  • Trauma of the inner ear
  • Hypothyroidism (a less-common cause of vestibular syndrome)
  • Stroke
  • Certain medications that are toxic to the ears and have the potential to cause this condition (aminoglycoside antibiotics, metronidazole, or topical chlorhexidine)
  • Idiopathic vestibular syndrome (in the case of senior dogs and with an unknown cause)

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What Is the Treatment for Vestibular Syndrome in Dogs?

The treatment of vestibular syndrome in dogs depends on how the underlying problem is treated. For example, if your dog’s vestibular syndrome is caused by an inner or middle ear infection, the treatment will include topical ear medication and oral medication (e.g., antibiotics). Also, your dog’s ears should be cleaned periodically.

If your dog has suffered a stroke, the treatment will be symptomatic: anti-vertigo (e.g., meclizine) and anti-nausea medication. In the case of hypothyroidism, the vet will supplement your puppy with thyroid hormones. They may also administer supportive treatment until the hormone therapy begins to work.

How to Prevent Vestibular Syndrome in Dogs

Cleaning beagle dog ear
Image Credit: yangtak, Shutterstock

Vestibular syndrome itself cannot be prevented, but you can prevent the primary conditions that can cause it.

Here is what you can do:
  • Clean your dog’s ears often.
  • Regular vet exams and tests can help your vet detect problems before your dog develops vestibular syndrome.
  • If you notice signs of illness in your dog, take your dog to the vet right away. The sooner the source of the problem is found, the sooner your dog can receive proper treatment.

How to Care for a Dog With Vestibular Syndrome

In addition to the medicinal treatment prescribed by the veterinarian, there are certain things that you can do at home to promote your dog’s recovery.

Here are a few examples:
  • Limit your dog’s access to a small space. It must be safe, quiet, and comfortable.
  • If your dog’s condition is severe, with major imbalances, place pillows or blankets around them to provide support.
  • Restrict your dog’s access to the stairs or to the pool.
  • Remove possible obstacles from their path.
  • Help your dog drink and eat if they can’t do it on their own; otherwise, they risk choking.
  • If your dog finds it difficult to move, change their position from one side to the other every 4 hours (maximum) to prevent the formation of bedsores.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why Is My Puppy Dizzy and Off Balance?

A dog that loses their balance, seems dizzy, and appears to be drunk is usually dealing with a severe health problem and will need immediate vet attention. Sudden loss of balance, dizziness, and wobbly gait are among the clinical signs that may indicate a neurological problem.

Close-up face of Cute pug puppy dog rest by chin and tongue lay down on laminate floor
Image Credit: fongleon356, Shutterstock

How Long Does Vestibular Syndrome in Dogs Last?

In general, the clinical signs of idiopathic vestibular syndrome disappear in 2–3 weeks. However, some dogs can remain with sequelae for life, such as a wobbly gait or head tilt. If the clinical signs have not disappeared in a few weeks, your dog may have an underlying condition that affects the vestibular system. As a result, it is recommended to take your dog to the vet for a correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

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Conclusion

If your dog has wobbly walking and cannot maintain their balance, it means they have vestibular syndrome. The causes in dogs are multiple and include brain tumors, infections and/or inflammations of the middle or inner ear, hypothyroidism, stroke, or certain medications that are toxic to the ears. In addition to wobbly walking and loss of balance, vestibular syndrome can cause the following clinical signs: circling, head tilt, nausea and/or vomiting, nystagmus, face paralysis, and Horner syndrome. If your dog shows one or more of these signs, take them to the vet immediately. The treatment of vestibular syndromes consists of treating the primary condition and administering supportive treatment.


Featured Image Credit: Taylor Treadgold, Shutterstock

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