Vestibular Disease in Dogs

Vestibular Disease in Dogs

Think your dog might be suffering from vestibular disease? Learn about the different types of vestibular disease in dogs, and what you should be on the lookout for.

Table of Contents

Vestibular disease is a condition that affects the vestibular system, the system that allows the body to remain balanced. The most common form of vestibular disease in dogs is peripheral vestibular disease, which is caused by disorders occurring in the middle and inner ear. With this form of the disease, damage to the nerves connecting the inner ear to the brain is the cause. Often dogs suffering from this will experience a loss of balance, vertigo, and dizziness. The first time the dog exhibits symptoms can be very scary for a dog owner, but it’s a fairly common condition that can be treated.

Central vestibular disease is much rarer in dogs, and also much more serious. This form of the disease attacks the central nervous system, leading to more severe symptoms and affecting nerves in potentially multiple parts of the body.

Causes of Vestibular Disease in Dogs

The two different forms of the disease have different systems. With peripheral disease, the cause is typically some type of damage or trauma to the head or ears. Central vestibular disease on the other hand, has much serious causes.

Causes of peripheral disease:

  • Chronic middle and inner ear infections
  • Excessive cleaning of the ears, which can tear the eardrum
  • Loop diuretics and other ear cleaners used when a torn eardrum is present
  • Head injury trauma
  • Use of certain antibiotics (especially amikacin, gentamicin, neomycin, and tobramycin)
  • Brain tumors are thought to be a possible cause for idiopathic vestibular disease, a form found in older dogs

Causes of central vestibular disease:

  • Inflammatory disease
  • Infection
  • Trauma or bleeding of the brain
  • Loss of blood flow
  • Polyps
  • Cancer

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Symptoms of Vestibular Disease in Dogs

Because the disease attacks the body’s ability to balance itself, the most common symptoms of vestibular disease are a head that’s continuously tilted, or a dog that consistently walks in circles. This is particularly true with peripheral vestibular disease, as there’s a problem with the dog’s inner ear.

Other symptoms of the disease include:

  • Loss of coordination
  • Staggering
  • Falling
  • Rolling
  • Involuntary, jerking eye movements, a condition known as nystagmus
  • Dizziness
  • Drooling
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting


Breeds Most at Risk for Vestibular Disease

Because peripheral vestibular disease is typically caused by an injury or trauma to the area, there is no specific breed or breeds that are most at risk for developing it.

Another form of the disease, known as congenital vestibular disease, is acquired in utero and can sometimes be seen in puppies from birth until the age of three months. Breeds most at risk for this type of the disease are German shepherds, Doberman pinschers, Akitas, English cocker spaniels, beagles, smooth fox terriers, and Tibetan terriers.

Older dogs seem more at risk for developing the disease and this form is often known as idiopathic vestibular disease. Dogs suffering from this type of the disease are often confused for having a stroke. Idiopathic vestibular disease can make it difficult for older dogs to eat, drink, or even go to the bathroom. For this reason, it’s recommended that food and water bowls be kept close at hand, and that if possible, the dog be lifted to an appropriate bathroom area. Some older dogs need supportive therapy such as IV fluids for supplemental nutrition.

Diagnosing Vestibular Disease in Dogs

Diagnosing vestibular disease can be difficult. Typically a vet will start with tests that will eliminate the possibility of other diseases. These might include:

  • Tests to evaluate kidney, liver, and pancreatic levels as well as sugar levels
  • A test to measure a complete blood count (CBC) to look for possible blood-related disorders and conditions
  • Electrolyte tests to check for dehydration and/or an electrolyte imbalance
  • Urine tests to screen for urinary tract infections
  • Thyroid test to determine the amount of the thyroid hormone the thyroid gland is producing
  • Cortisol test, to rule out Addison’s disease
  • Tests to rule out parasitic infections
  • Examination of the abdomen and possible ultrasound to check for tumors

Once other possibilities have been ruled out, the vet will perform a neurological assessment to determine if the vestibular disease is peripheral or central. If the peripheral form is found, an otoscope will be used to look deep into your dog’s ears.

If central vestibular disease is found, the vet will recommend any number of things including an MRI, CT scan, spinal fluid tap, as well as a surgical biopsy of any tumors or polyps that might be found. During the examination, the vet will also look for signs of infection that might be the root cause of the disease.

Treatment of Vestibular Disease in Dogs

Because vestibular disease has so many different causes, treatment will depend on the root cause of the disease.

Dogs born with congenital vestibular disease often become accustomed to it and while they are never fully cured, it becomes less of a problem as they age. Dogs suffering from idiopathic vestibular disease often see the condition clear up within a week or two, although some suffer terribly from it. For these dogs, nursing care and homeopathic remedies are really the only therapies available. Nausea medications can be provided to help alleviate stomach problems while other symptoms can be targeted and treated as well to help make the dog more comfortable and increase their quality of life.

In many types of vestibular disease, underlying conditions can be treated and the vestibular disease will clear up on its own. Antibiotics can be prescribed for middle or inner ear infections, and thyroid medication can be given for thyroid problems. If medications are the problem causing vestibular disease, simply taking the dog off of them can be enough to get rid of the condition. If polyps and cancerous tumors are found, removing them can also treat the vestibular disease.

Central vestibular disease unfortunately, has a much more severe prognosis than the peripheral form. Because damage to the brain stem is often the root cause, it’s not usually treatable and can have devastating effects.

Preventing Vestibular Disease in Dogs

Although there is virtually nothing that can be done to prevent many forms of vestibular disease, there are a few ways to prevent the peripheral form. Make sure that your dog is not over-zealously cleaning their ears or otherwise causing trauma to their ear or head, and also make sure to keep them clean and free of infection. Most of all, take them to the vet regularly to quickly spot any conditions that could lead to vestibular disease.

Vestibular disease in dogs is something that can be very scary for dogs and their owners, especially when the first time symptoms are displayed. Speak to your vet regularly about keeping your dog healthy and always ensure your dog is getting regular physical examinations. This can help your vet identify any form of vestibular disease, and get them treatment even faster.

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