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.


“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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9 thoughts on “Dizzy Dog Syndrome: The Facts on Idiopathic Vestibular Disease”

  1. I am going through a similar situation right now with my puggle Lola who is 17. She is no spring chicken but she is healthy and loves her walks on a regular. She has a very healthy appetite too. So when this happened it total scared me and I thought she was dying. I noticed her starting to walk in a little circle almost like she was drunk. When we got to the emergency hospital she was getting a little worse. By the time we were on a way home with meds she was on her side and not able to stand on her own! She has good moments where she just stands but it’s wobbly. Her head is really sideways not just tilted and she seems to get some relief if she presses it up again a cushion. They gave us all the medicines mentioned in the other comments. She seems to get really bad at night. Last night she was spinning her whole body. It was horrible to see her so distraught. She is till eating and drinking water though hasn’t lost her appetite. Today is day three I hope she gets some relief soon. All your comments have given me a little hope and it might get better in time.

  2. Molly is an almost 15 year old Golden Retreiver who woke us up in the middle of the night last night chuffing and barking. On its own not terribly unusual but after watching her for a few minutes with her head tilting and nystagmus (learned this later at the vet) we decided to take her in when they opened. Luckily there was a neurologist there and she told us exactly the same thing, idiopathic vestibular disease. She did order blood tests to rule out other typical causes like thyroid disease. We were given Cerenia for the motion sickness and antibiotics for possible inner ear infection. The differences we have experienced however, she has not vomited, has eaten well both breakfast before the vet visit and dinner a few hours ago. She’s drinking pretty well but she will not sleep. She goes through very short periods, maybe 10-20 minutes, of rest with her head layed down but she has now pretty much been awake for 20 hrs. She is clearly distressed and it’s horrible to watch. It seems to calm her down to lay on the floor with her giving her love, but she still won’t sleep. It’s heartbreaking to see he like this but the prognosis is pretty good. I hope she gets to sleep soon! Good luck to all of you that experience this too! Sweet angels!

  3. Similar to previous commenter, I also have a 13.5 year old shiba inu who very suddenly got horrible balance, falling, confusion, then vomiting. Rushed her to the vet thinking it could be a stroke. All blood and urine tests came back normal. The vet sent us home with Meclizine 25mg tabs to be cut in half, one half given every 24 hours. Praying hard this will be a cure. She said the alternative at this point is it could be a brain tumor. Hoping it should clear up within a week but if not I was given a referral to a neurologist veterinarian. She had ear infections when she was young but nothing recent. Worried sick, it’s such a scary thing to witness especially having had other animals die of strokes. I originally put her in a dog pen but she kept falling into the metal sides so I put her in a fabric cat pen with a pile of blankets and she’s been sleeping ever since. Small interest in water but hard for her to drink, no interest in food. I really hope she’ll be okay, poor Serendipity 🙁

  4. My Shiba Inu was diagnosed with this vestibular disease just last night at an emergency vet visit at 1am. It is exactly like you described for her and it came on like with a flick of a switch! Although thinking she may have had some suttle hints but nothing like last night.
    I too thought she had a stroke. She’s 13 1/2 and otherwise has been in pretty perfect health!
    The er vet suggests getting a number of tests.
    As it could be caused by something else. But she also said it can just go away after a week or so.
    We too have the anti nausea & dizziness meds to give her daily. It’s heartbreaking to see her this way. Her appetite hasn’t been great for so I’ve been refrigerating her food anyway. And she has eaten a little. Just giving her lots of love and blessings and hope that she recovers completely and then I will not put her through any testing for a cause.
    If you are reading this and your dog is displaying these symptoms, try not to panic and take him or her to a vet during regular hours.
    I’ve never seen anything like this and thought the worst and because she’s been soooo healthy we didn’t have a regular vet so we took her to the er 24 hour and waited till 3am to be seen.
    We were just so afraid of what we were seeing in her that that’s what we did. Hindsight I would have taken her to someone else during regular hours and not subjected her or us to the long night in the er waiting room…
    Live and learn, better safe than sorry?

    1. Thank you for this.. came across this article while researching. My dog was diagnosed with this and at times during the day he seems better and then at night he seems worse. He is sleeping a ton and when he wakes up he gets meds, eats and goes back to sleep. I am stressed because he seemed to stand on his own earlier but then later tonight not so much. This is probably the worst thing I have seen… ever

  5. My little Chinese Crested died suddenly from it yesterday. He survived his first bout with it over 2 years ago but yesterday’s was severe, sudden and deadly. He died screaming in pain with his eyes wide open.

  6. My 14 year old dog had this happen a couple weeks ago…she is also dealing with cancer that is in her left anal gland and has a area on her liver and bladder…I am told that this has nothing to do with that…anyways Brindle was wobbly and had loss of appetite…she did not vomit and was able to walk in on her own…the vet said she had a very mild case…she was given a shot of Cerenia for nausea and vomiting….and gave me a few pills to give her over the next couple days….Brindle got better really quick…she was a little leary to go up her ramp to get in the car and out but we managed….she is back to her prior self…

  7. I just went through this with my dog 3 days ago, and she is improving a little each day. Reading your blog is giving me hope that my Buster will make a full recovery. Thanks for the tip about cold food as well. I bought a harness to help keep her grom falling so she can potty.

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