« Vestibular disease in dogs: what is it? » | Vestibular disease is a condition affecting the vestibular system. This system, located in the inner ear, is responsible for the sense of equilibrium and orientation. Hence, when it is impaired, dogs will show certain signs which can represent an intense source of worry for their owners.
Here we describe the signs, explain the causes and how to manage the condition.
- This blog is intended as a source of general information for pet owners. It does not constitute specific veterinary advice towards a particular medical case. If you are concerned with a particular aspect of your pet’s health, please, book a video appointment to talk with a qualified veterinarian
What are the signs?
Signs of vestibular disease in dogs will show rather suddenly to pet owners. Dogs will exhibit symptoms such as:
- head tilt
- nystagmus: a situation where the eyes of the dog will flick horizontally or vertically
- ataxia: seen as a loss of coordination of movement
The loss of balance can sometimes make owner wonder whether their dog might have had a stroke. Dogs might also appear unable to stand. Dogs may also show signs of nausea and/or vomit.
Vestibular disease can affect both dogs and cats. However, in dogs, idiopathic vestibular disease tends to affect dogs beyond 8 years of age.
What are the causes?
Two types of vestibular diseases
Peripheral vestibular disease: this type involves a problem with the vestibular nerve in the inner ear
Central vestibular disease: this type suggests an issue with the brainstem, such as a lesion in the area
It is possible to know which type is involved by carrying a physical and neurological assessment of the dog. This will be determined by the veterinarian.
For example, a dog who exhibits the symptoms mentioned above but who otherwise remains alert would be suggestive of a peripheral vestibular disease. Alternatively, a dog showing altered mentation or even coma would be more suggestive of a central vestibular disease.
The evaluation of the nystagmus can also provide an indication regarding the type of vestibular disease involved. Sometimes, peripheral vestibular disease can affect both sides in which case, only the dog’s gait might be affected.
When the central nervous system is involved, other signs might show such as seizures, tremors or a possible increase in body temperature.
Causes of vestibular diseases
In some instances, it is not possible to determine a particular root cause for the manifestation of a vestibular disease. In such case, the condition is referred as idiopathic vestibular disease. Some types of drugs are known to be ototoxic and can trigger vestibular disease.
Other root causes of vestibular disease can be investigated with the help of a few diagnostic tools:
- blood test to detect hypothyroidism
- ear examination with an otoscope to evaluate the tympanic membrane
- radiographs: which can give a set of clues on the area surrounding the tympanic bulla
- examination of the ear and pharynx under general anaesthesia which can assist in detecting any suspicious lesion
- CT scan / MRI are more advanced imaging tools allowing examination of middle ear and other structures of interest, especially the brain tissue (MRI)
- CSF analysis, which means analysis of the cerebrospinal fluid, is used to detect a potential encephalitis due some types of micro-organisms
How to manage it?
Care and treatment will depend on the root cause. With idiopathic vestibular disease, the situation is generally expected to improve in a matter of weeks. Owners will be provided with information on how to care for their dog at home.
In infectious cases, the treatment will target the pathogen involved. In some instances where a media / internal otitis or a cancer is present, a surgical procedure could be required to remove some tissues or tumors.
Due to the nature of the areas involved, those procedures can be tricky and sometimes difficult to achieve.
Vestibular disease has a prognosis which depends of its type and root cause. A peripheral vestibular disease has generally a good outcome with the appropriate treatment. It is worth noting that the head tilt might not disappear.
The prognosis becomes guarded for a central vestibular disease where conditions such as encephalitis or cancer are involved.