Vestibular Disease



The dog's owners thought for sure their dog had suffered a stroke. They thought their dog was going to die. It came on suddenly. Mary, a 14 year-old dog, collapsed on her left side during her daily morning walk. Her owner thought she had stumbled and helped Mary to her feet. After a few minutes they were able to walk the mile home. Mary's owner watched her closely, but everything seemed normal again. Mary took her usual nap, but by afternoon her condition had deteriorated. Mary's eyes twitched rapidly back and forth and when she tried to stand she was unable to keep her balance. She could not stand or walk without tipping over to the left side. She had to be carried outdoors and held to urinate. By evening, she vomited what little she had eaten that day.

Mary's owners carried her into their veterinarian's office the next morning. She still had no balance and her eyes still twitched. Their veterinarian called it old dog vestibular syndrome and prescribed an antibiotic and prednisone. He couldn't be absolutely sure of his diagnosis without further invasive tests and offered no details regarding her prognosis. Time would tell if it was truly old dog vestibular syndrome. Ruling out trauma from a head injury, a number of conditions could cause the same symptoms: a brain tumor, bacterial infection or bleeding from a blood vessel in the brain.

Vestibular means "a problem with the connections between the inner/middle ear and brain" causing ataxia. Dogs with ataxia stand with their limbs braced, they walk with great difficulty and have a "drunk" type motion because the dog has lost its sense of balance and cannot tell where its paws are. When the vestibular nerve, which travels from the inner ear to the brain, malfunctions, it disrupts the animal's sense of balance and orientation.

It is important to find out where the vestibular abnormality is located. The disturbance can be peripheral, meaning it is located outside the brain, or central, located inside the brain. The distinction between the two is subtle and is best diagnosed by a veterinary neurologist. The peripheral vestibular disturbance is the most common and least serious.

It has been suggested that there is a correlation between old dog vestibular syndrome and hypothyroidism so blood work should be done to rule out this problem. The ears should be thoroughly examined because the same symptoms can result from a severe ear mite infestation. Also, certain types of antibiotics such as streptomycin and gentamicin can cause vestibular syndrome.

This syndrome is not a life threatening condition, nor should it even be called old dog vestibular syndrome because young dogs have also contracted it. However, in most cases, old dogs are seen by veterinarians with this condition more often.

Old dog vestibular is not exclusive to dogs. All higher animals that have a vestibular system, from fish to mammals, can be afflicted. With most unilateral peripheral vestibular diseases, the cause is idiopathic, which means no one knows what causes it.

Time is a major factor in old dog vestibular syndrome. Recovery time depends on the afflicted dog. Eventually the animal teaches itself to compensate and overcome old dog vestibular. Rest and quiet are required during this recovery time, and it's important to keep the dog in a well lighted room. If possible, avoid carrying the dog or, if this is unavoidable, lift the dog slowly and smoothly and hold the pads of its feet while airborne. Lifting and moving it through the air disrupts the dog's sense of orientation. Keeping the dog's feet firmly on the ground with its eyes on the horizon helps it regain its balance.

Mary became nearly symptom-free about five months after her episode. She is back to her old routine but is left with a few reminders; her head still tilts slightly, her coordination is not what it was and she avoids dark corners and steep staircases.

This condition is sometimes misdiagnosed and dogs who could have recovered have been euthanized because the condition appears so severe. It is important to note that there are no warning signs which may lead to the conclusion that it is a stroke. Fortunately, most dogs will be spared this affliction. However, if your dog does contract this disease, it is comforting to know that it is not fatal and recovery is merely a matter of patience and tender loving care.

Please note that a serious inner/middle ear infection (which can occur without the customary smelly ear) has the same severe and frightening symptoms. An infection can usually be cured with antibiotics and the dog have a complete recovery. As always, check with your vet.

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Yankee Golden Retriever Rescue, Inc. is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1985.
Rescue and Adoption services for Golden Retrievers from the six New England states.
Address: P.O. Box 808, Hudson, MA 01749-0808
Hotline: 978-568-9700


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