We will describe in this article the clinical signs commonly seen in vestibular disease in dogs. A dog keeps oriented due to the vestibular system. This sensory system is responsible to maintain the position of the body, eyes, and limbs in reference to the head’s position. Precise neuro-anatomic localization and proper interpretation of neurologic deficits are essential in order to diagnose the vestibular disease in dogs. Through neurologic examination it can be determined whether the vestibular dysfunction is of central nervous system or peripheral system origin.
The most common cause of dogs’ peripheral vestibular disease is the idiopathic vestibular syndrome. This condition can improve even without intervention, despite its dramatic clinical presentation. However, if is a central vestibular disease then it generally has a poorer prognosis.
When an older dog has a head tilt, eyes that are “moving funny”, and difficulty walking, these are symptoms of a condition that looks really bad. When confronted with these symptoms, dog owners often think their dogs have had strokes. Fortunately, the good news is that usually it gets better on its own without the need for treatment or with just little treatment. This is the case of idiopathic vestibular disease, with causes that are mostly unknown by veterinarians.
The vestibular system includes portions of the ear and brain and is responsible for the sense of balance. Dogs who suffer from the idiopathic vestibular disease may manifest some combination of the following clinical signs:
· An unwillingness to eat due to nausea
· A head tilt
· They roll across the floor or circle in one direction
· They are unsteady on their feet
· Their eyes flick up and down, back and forth, or rotate in a circle
These symptoms are not unique to the idiopathic vestibular disease. Some inflammatory diseases, tumors, infections, and other conditions can all affect a dog’s vestibular system and give similar clinical signs. However, when these symptoms appear in an older dog out of nowhere and then start to improve over the course of a few weeks, the usual cause is the idiopathic vestibular disease.
When a veterinary suspects that a dog is suffering from idiopathic vestibular disease, they will generally recommend a wait and see approach. In the meantime, owners will need to help the dog outside, protect the dog from falls, and hand feed and water if necessary. Sometimes the veterinary will also prescribe anti-nausea medications. In case that the dog starts to get better in a few days and is recovers in a few weeks, no additional diagnostic testing is necessary. But in case that the dog does not start recovering by himself, MRI scans, CT scans, X-rays, blood tests, and other tests may be necessary in order to achieve a conclusive and definitive diagnosis.
Most dogs affected by idiopathic vestibular disease are able to fully recover. Some others may remain with persistent but mild neurologic deficits, such as head tilt or wobble. Fortunately, these deficits are rarely serious enough to affect adversely the dog’s quality of life. As they age, dogs may have more than one bout of idiopathic vestibular disease.
Vestibular disease in dogs is not always occurring in a benign form and in the most severe cases the dog may need to be euthanized.