Dizzy Dog Syndrome: The Facts on Idiopathic Vestibular Disease

The disorder makes an animal appear to be at death’s door, but it’s seldom fatal or permanent.

dogedit  |  Apr 3rd 2014

“There’s something wrong with Patia!”

The words, screamed from the other bedroom in the middle of the night, cut through my sleep and had my feet hitting the floor before my eyes were even open.

A few steps from the bed, I stepped in something slippery, the kind of puddled slime only sick dogs can leave on the floor. But I kept on running. When I got to the other room, the lights were on, and Patia was flopping around on the floor like a beached and drunken fish. She’d try to get up, but would only get one foot under her before she keeled over and floundered around some more. This was not good.

“Is she dying?” came the frantic question. At 13 years of age, death is always a looming possibility for a dog.

I checked her gum color. Pink. If her gums had been white, I would have suspected internal bleeding and shock from loss of blood; it happens in some types of cancer, like hemangiosarcoma.

“Did she have a stroke? A heart attack?”

I pressed on her gums. The color returned in a couple of seconds. If they hadn’t re-pinked after I pressed on them, I would have suspected a heart problem. I felt her heart. It was beating fast, but strong and regular.

I looked around the room. Close by was another puddle of vomit to match the one I’d stepped in. I had a suspicion. I looked in her eyes. Pupils dilated. She was scared. But more important, her eyes were making a circle, over and over, like she was watching a Ferris wheel on double-time. Her head swayed along with her eyes like a drunkard getting off the merry-go-round.

I leaned back and said, “She’s going to be all right.”

What led me to that conclusion? Patia was 13 years old, she’d vomited repeatedly, she was acting dizzy and her eyes were going in a circle. Her sense of balance was shot. Everything pointed to old dog vestibular disease, or more accurately, idiopathic vestibular disease. The condition is more common in older animals, but can also occur in middle-aged ones, and in both dogs and cats. Other signs include a tilted head, falling to one side or walking in an uncoordinated circle.

I’d only seen one other dog with it, several years earlier in a veterinary waiting room. In that case a distraught couple thought their elderly Chihuahua had had a stroke, and they were taking her to be euthanized. They placed her on the floor, where she just stumbled around in a circle and then flopped over on her side. Her eyes darted from side to side. The fancy word for this sort of eye movement is nystagmus, and while it doesn’t always mean vestibular disease, it’s a good indicator.

Idiopathic vestibular disease makes an animal appear to be at death’s door, but it’s seldom fatal or permanent. The veterinarian checked the couple’s Chihuahua, and they left with him, still dizzy, but still alive!

Nobody knows what causes idiopathic vestibular disease (the term idiopathic means nobody knows what causes it!). The vestibular apparatus is what helps us keep our balance, letting us know how our body is oriented in relation to the earth. It has components in the middle ear and in the brain. In some cases, middle ear infections or brain tumors can cause vestibular problems. More often, the cause is never found. Fortunately, idiopathic cases tend to get better on their own, within a few days to a couple of weeks. Most often, the animal has no residual effects, except perhaps for a slight head tilt.

You can help your dog feel better, but there’s nothing you can do to hasten a cure. In most cases, there’s no need for extensive tests unless no improvement is seen after several days. Otherwise, the best thing you can do is to help your dog sleep through it. Ask your veterinarian for anti-nausea medication for motion sickness and for a sedative that will help him sleep. He won’t be hungry, so you may have to hand feed him and encourage him to eat a little once he can hold things down. Hint: Cold foods tend to make him less nauseous.

He may not even be able to drink, because aiming his tongue over the water bowl actually requires some coordination. If that’s the case you may need to steady his head over the bowl or syringe some water into his mouth. Put some water in a big syringe, place it in the side of his mouth, and slowly push the water in. Worst case, you may need to have sub-cutananeous fluids.

Patia was miserable for the first two days and had to be carried outside and held upright while she went to the bathroom. But within two days she was walking on her own, even if it was mostly sideways and into walls, and by the end of the week, she was even running. She lived almost another three years without ever having another occurrence.

Has your dog or a dog you know experienced idiopathic vestibular disease? Tell us about it in the comments.

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About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.