Also called “geriatric vestibular disease” or “old dog vestibular disease.” This disease can occur in older dogs and cats suddenly, within an hour or less, and can cause signs that can look quite severe and be distressing to you and your pet. However, these signs are not permanent and will gradually decrease in severity over days to weeks.
The vestibular system is involved in keeping you, and your pet balanced and helps keep you aware of your position in reference to the ground. If you get car sick or feel dizzy after going on a spinning ride at the fair, this is due to your vestibular system. Vestibular signs include a head tilt, staggering or falling over to one side, and nystagmus (eyes flicking rapidly to one side). Dogs with the vestibular disease often feel like they have motion sickness, so may have a decreased appetite or vomiting.
The word ‘idiopathic’ means we do not know what causes this disease. However, similar signs can be seen with a severe inner ear infection, hypothyroidism, cancer, infectious or inflammatory causes, or trauma to the ear or neck. Diagnosis of idiopathic vestibular disease is made by checking for and ruling out these other possible causes of vestibular signs, as well as considering the age of your pet and sudden onset of signs. The treatment for the idiopathic vestibular disease is supportive: anti-nausea medication to help decrease vomiting and improve appetite, and resting your pet, so they do not fall over and hurt themselves while their balance is still off. They may also need help eating and drinking for a few days if their head tilt and disorientation is severe.
Signs should begin to improve 2-3 days after onset, as your pet begins to compensate and find their balance again. However, signs take up to two weeks to improve completely, and some dogs will still have a mild head tilt or mild ataxia (imbalance) long term.
Written by Dr. Connie Tuck, DVM