Canine Vestibular Syndrome: More Common Than You Think

by Melissa R. on October 21, 2010

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Golden Retriever Annie

Golden Retriever Annie

One morning my mom called me frantic, telling my father had just rushed our beloved, 14 year old Golden Retriever, Annie, to the veterinarian. She was certain she wasn’t going to be coming back alive.

She said they woke up and went to let Annie outside to go potty, when they noticed her weaving back and forth, her head tilted, and having a hard time standing. My dad tried to help her up and out the door, thinking it was just a little bout of old dog waking up… but upon further inspection, he saw her eyes were jerking back & forth and she started drooling, barely able to stand. Thankfully, my parents live just a few houses down from their veterinarian, who was in and able to help Annie quickly.

The next phone call I received from my mom was one of relief, explaining to me Annie was doing better, getting IV fluids, on some medication and the veterinarian saying she had something called, “Canine Vestibular Syndrome”, not a stroke after all, and she should be just fine! What a RELIEF!

I started looking up Canine Vestibular Syndrome (also called Old Dog Vestibular Disease), to find out what it was all about. Turns out it is much more common in older dogs than many people think. Many people find their dog doing things like this, and immediately think the dog is having a stroke and sometimes don’t do anything for them! In fact, Annie had not one, but two occurrences of this in her later years, but came out of them fine. She did develop a couple strange “ticks” – one was that she would lift her right paw up if she was sitting about every 5 minutes. The other was a bit of a tilt of her head. But other than that she was perfectly healthy the rest of her years.

Here are some symptoms of Canine Vestibular Syndrome:
• Loss of balance
• Head tilted and circling
• Rapid eye motion
• Sometime nausea (may see drolling) and vomiting

The symptoms occur when the nerves connecting the inner ear and the cerebellum are inflamed, causing a balance issue in dogs. There is usually no indication that this is about to happen, and most dogs come down with it just out of the blue. It is more common in older dogs. Most dogs recover fine, though will need to be hand fed and helped along for the week or two it may take for them to recover. Annie recovered rapidly and didn’t have much trouble eating after a couple days.

So, if you see this happen to your pet, or hear of a friend’s pet – now you know and don’t have to be petrified your dog is dying. Head tilt, though, should be considered serious and you should have your dog examined as soon as possible. Being informed about common ailments in pets is one of the best ways to be a responsible pet owner. And, as always, consult your veterinarian immediately if your pet seems be suffering from ANY discomfort. Better safe than sorry…
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About the author: Melissa is a devoted pet owner with several cats: Kai, Cirrhi & Ritter; and the newest addition, Emme a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. Melissa is an avid dog agility enthusiast, and hopes her new pup will someday be an agility champion! She is a Graphic Designer and Project Coordinator for the DrsFosterSmith.com and LiveAquaria.com websites. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from Michigan State University and is a lifelong pet lover and owner. See more articles by Melissa R.

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Pet Care: Top 10 Pet Care Posts of 2010
December 27, 2012 at 1:35 pm

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Rosemary October 21, 2010 at 11:24 am

This was the reason that my Doberman mix, Gin was euthanised. She already had a bad heart in February of 2002, when she had her first episode. I was at work, and there was no way my husband could get her to the vet that night. We were able to get her in first thing in the morning, and she was recovering well, when she had another episode about two weeks later. She never recovered from the second episode, although she seemed to improve at first. She was put down in December that year, eight days before Christmas, which would have been her 15th birthday.

I was pregnant with my son (born Dec. 3rd), and was having to help her stand and walk, and was feeding her by hand, almost kibble by kibble. I think the only reason she ate was because she wanted to please me. She went from a slightly overweight 90 pounds down to 65 be the time we put her down. The day we woke up to find her lying in a pool of urine, feces and vomit was the day we knew that it was time to let her go.

Years ago, my family had a Peke-A-Pom who had one episode, and recovered, and a Sheltie mix who had such a severe episode that she was euthanised that day. I have heard of other dogs who recovered, and never had another problem.

Melissa R. October 22, 2010 at 9:12 am

Rosemary – heartbreaking story! So sad…. It is better to hear about those pets who recover for sure. I hope more people become educated about this. Thank you for sharing as always.

Victoria October 23, 2010 at 1:08 am

Our Dachshund had the same issue when he was 14. We woke up one morning and he was walking towards the back door to go outside when he stopped, wobbled from side to side then lost his balance and fell over. He sat up and kept moving his head up and down and side to side like a bobble head, his eyes were moving in every direction like a set of highspeed windshield wipers. I think the scariest part was when he started drooling and whining because he wasn’t feeling good. We really thought we would be coming home from the vet without him that day. At first the vet thought he had a mini stroke but after they ran some tests they concluded Canine Vestibular Syndrome. He totally enjoyed the extra attention he received at home, sleeping on my lap, being hand fed, being carried around instead of having to walk himself, etc. He was spoiled rotten before the episode, he was even more spoiled for the years afterward. He passed away 3 months ago at the age of 17 1/2 and never had another episode of CVS.

Sue Jorgenson October 23, 2010 at 12:42 pm

In humans it’s called labyrinthitis – I had it for many years in my childhood, and severely so. I still get flare ups and while I’m surprised to hear dogs get it, too, I’m also *not* surprised because we are all mammals and share the same mammalian biology. Thanks for the heads up, and I empathize with all animals that get this syndrome!

Janet January 14, 2011 at 1:53 pm

It is so nice that we have the www to share our stories and find such helpful information. Thank you all who have shared your stories as it put me and my family so much at ease knowing that our beloved Tessa will recover from her illness. Pretty much have the same symptoms. She went outside in the morning and 20 mins later she was still no barking to come in, which is very unusal for her to be quite. Tess is a shep/collie mix that loves to bark at the world and let everyone know that she is outside! My hubby went to get her and she as cowering in the corner by he wall of the house. She came in and kept collapsing to the left and circling to the left. I noticed that her eyes were moving from side to side rapidly and she was drooling as well. For sure I had thought the same. That she had a stroke. She is 10 years old and a little overweight, so a stoke was my first guess. Our vet informed us that vestibular sickness is what she had. It is now the second day and she still won’t stand up by herself and I amtakng her outside on a leash to pee but I am worried about her not drinking enough and she wont take any food from my hand. She has not at any dog food wet or dry in 2 days. She did have some bits of toast with me this morning. I a wondering what else I can feed her that she may eat. The vet told me jut to give her gravol 3 times a day and presribed a herbal med called gentiana drain fire. Any advise on wat to feed her r how to get mor water into her would be greatly apprecieated.

melissa January 14, 2011 at 2:22 pm

I would try getting her to eat just about anything. Try some really stinky stuff! Try anything really. It is good she ate some toast. That is definitely a start. Try to get her to drink whatever you can. Maybe do a google search for “How to get a sick dog to eat” – I bet there are lots of suggestions. I assume you’re keeping in close touch with your vet. Keep us posted!

Paulette Owen May 15, 2011 at 10:25 pm

Hi everyone,
I also thank the internet for allowing us to find information that can help us. My 12.5 year old cockapoo has been having these symptoms since Friday. At first it wasn’t too noticable because he is blind and sort of walks into things on a regular basis. But when he started walking in circles and walking into things that have always been there, I started to worry. So Friday night I went on google and looked up dizziness in dogs. My first thought was dementia (Koby also is a diabetic).My second thought was vertigo. But he hasn’t had any problem eating or drinking and he hasn’t been drooling. I haven’t noticed the eye problem but as I said he is blind and his eyes are completely white. Today (Sunday) he seems to be doing better. Because of what I read I didn’t feel the need to take him to our vet. but defintely would have if he couldn’t eat, He takes insulin twice a day. He is more settled now and is sleeping during the day again. Friday he paced and walked in circles alllllll day. So sad to see. Thank you again for your words of wisdom. And again, if I do get worried I will take him to our vet.

Pamela June 1, 2011 at 7:44 am

My Annie (a 17 year old shepard mix) just had a episode 2 days ago and I too thought it was a stroke. Such similar symptons! Vet re-assured me and put her on Meclizine to help her balance and decrease nausea (although she was eating and no vomiting at all). Within 2 (12 hour) doses she is “almost” back to normal. I am feeding her soft can “chunks with gravy” food with added water to be sure she is getting liquids. Scary but glad to know she will (and is) recovering! Good luck to all that experience this.

Raquel July 6, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Hello,
Sammy, our 13 year old collie-mix was fine Sunday morning but by that afternoon he couldn’t walk without falling down, was panting heavily, drooling, tilting his head, and walking in circles. He acted confused and would just stand there like he had no idea what to do. His eyebrows were twitching up and down like crazy. I was so worried I thought for sure he was having a stroke. He had absolutely no coordination and my husband had to carry him up and down the stairs to go outside. My vet diagnosed him with Vestibular Syndrome and put him on Baytril and Meclizine. He has had 2 dosesof medicine but we have not noticed much difference in him at all. He really has a hard time eating so I am hand feeding him for now. He is still pretty wobbly I sure hope he shows some signs of improvement soon. This whole thing has been frightening I am still worried about him and feel so bad for him. He is such a sweet dog! I sympathize with any poor dog that has to go through this and the people that love them as well, it is a hard thing to watch!

Patrick July 10, 2011 at 7:35 pm

In Reply to: Rosemary October 21, 2010 at 11:24 am story:

Rosemary my dog is now 16 and going through this her second time. It sounds like your dog died of a bad heart not “canine vestibular disorder”. I am not a vet but a bad heart is a bad heart and it’s sad she died. The symptoms are usually temporary with “canine vestibular disorder” and go away after a few weeks. It is heartbrekaing to see my dog even now @ 16 going through it but I am HOPING and PRAYING she does and comes out of it again, her heart is doing OK and the rest of her is OK for a 16 year old German Sheperd mix.

Anyone who has a dog going through this and about 3 weeks of time should at least TRY to get their dog better if they can barring any other severe health conditions your pet may have.

There is always hope! That is my point this “Syndrome” is usually if at all a killer one, just like a REALLY, REALLY bad case of vertigo for your dog. If they are suffering then do what you must but please TRY to save them.

Take Care.
Tom

Patrick July 10, 2011 at 7:37 pm

I want to fix one thing I said:

There is always hope! That is my point this “Syndrome” is usually NOT NOT NOT if at all a killer one, just like a REALLY, REALLY bad case of vertigo for your dog.

Rosemary August 10, 2011 at 11:51 pm

Actually, Patrick, my vet said it was a direct result of the Vestibular Syndrome that Gin had to be put down. Although most dogs recover without having any more problems, not all do. The closer together the episodes are, the less the likelihood of recovery. Gin’s second episode occurred only 2 weeks after the first, and she never regained her sense of balance. She could not stand by herself, and had to be practically carried around (try doing that while you’re pregnant and the dog weighs 90 pounds).

Because she was always dizzy, she had bouts of severe nausea, and eventually lost her appetite due to the nausea. The body’s logic is “Well, it won’t stay down anyway, so why bother to eat in the first place?”. If you’ve ever had a bad case of the stomach flu, you know the feeling. Your body eventually quits being hungry, and eventually starts to shut down.

As for my sheltie mix, at 15, Queeniey had absolutely no health problems before her episode, but my vet felt she was unlikely to recover.

By the way, ever had a bad case of vertigo? I get what is called positional vertigo, and it is no fun. Your’e just standing there, you move your head, and WHAM!, you’re so dizzy you can’t stand up. Only, you can’t lie down either, because you’re just as dizzy (or even dizzier) lieing down as you are standing up. It’s like the world is spinning the wrong direction, and it can last days.

Like I said, not every animal responds the same. I lost a cat after a routine spay because her blood didn’t clot. Her mother had absolutely no complications when she was spayed. Her kitten had no complications when he was neutered. I hope your dog recovers, and has more healthy times ahead of her.

Rochelle August 24, 2011 at 1:46 am

I am so happy to see people sharing their experiences that they have had with their dogs, that have canine vestibular syndrome! Our German Shephard is currently 13 years old. About a week and a half ago, we let her out into the garden early in the morning. We heard a strange noise outside and found our dog walking against the wall in a ‘drunk’ motion. We then assisted her by holding her body up, as she was swaying and was unsteady on her feet. It was really scary to see her this way as we really thought she was having a stroke. Her head was tilted to the left, eyes were moving back and forth, she was drooling and her eyebrows has severe twitches. When we took her to the vet, he said she had this syndrome, which we were relieved to hear. He gave her antibiotics and ear drops. She has been at home for about a week and has improved with regards to the eye twitching,drooling and rapid eye movements. She every so often sits up for a few seconds and then lies down again, but still cannot walk. I have done research on this syndrome and found positive comments from people who have had dogs with this syndrome. We have tried to help her stand up to move her legs, but this traumatizes her. Is there anyone who can share their experience on how their dog progressed with regards to them starting to walk again? and in what time period were they able to walk again? this will be much appreciated!!!

Stacey September 7, 2011 at 5:22 am

My dog is a 17 yr old mungrel (yorkshire terrier crossed with jack russel) who has recently overcome a bad infection which made him very ill. He overcmoe the infection after a 2 week course of antibiotics and the vet also found he had a heart murmur which he is on tablets for now. Having overcome the infection he now seems to have all the symptoms of Canine Vestibular Disease, he walks in circles then falls down, has a type of fit where he rolls over and over on the floor, his eyes shake from side to side, his head is tilted and he walks along all the walls of the house to stay up right. I have taken him to the vets and explained the symptoms but they said it was just fits due to old age and gave me tablets for the fitting. My dog is still eating and drinking and is not throwing up, although it is very upsetting seeing him like this. The main thing is he does not seem to be in any pain, just very “drunk” on his feet. He has been bad with this for a day or two now but he seems determined to overcome it. I am just worried about the rolling over and over as he bangs his head really hard on the floor and we cannot always be there to stop him from doing this. Does anyone know of any tablets i could ask for off my vet next time i take him in??

Tom October 23, 2011 at 12:16 pm

My 15 1/2 year old female mix of about 23 pounds is in her 15th day of CVS. She has made strong improvement, is loving her walk and eating, drinking, eliminating healthily.
But still unsteady on her feet, weak on stairs and with noticeable head tilt. Anybody read or heard whether dogs truly recover completely from this, or are they able to accommodate the illness and live with it? Thanks.

Holly Nash, DVM October 24, 2011 at 9:49 am

There are a number of causes of vestibular disease in dogs. Sometimes we can’t identify a cause, and then the condition is termed “idiopathic”. Other times the cause can be identified, and could be due to hypothyroidism, a middle or inner ear problem, a small cerebral infarct (stroke) or even a tumor. I would recommend that you contact your veterinarian and report that your dog is still showing these vestibular signs. If the dog has not been checked for hypothyroidism or other potential causes, I would recommend doing that. For some dogs with idiopathic vestibular disease, it may take more than two week for all the signs to resolve. In others, it’s a matter of a few days. Each one is different. Good luck to you and your dog!

Nancy October 27, 2011 at 11:45 pm

My 12 year old Golden had what I thought was a seizure on fathers day this year the first time ever then again in Aug twice in the same day , she had the eye shaking ,no control of her back legs could not walk but it only lasted for an hour to hour and half but I noticed after every time she had one of these fits her left eyebrow would twitch for hours so if I left the house and came home and she could not walk I looked at her eyebrows for the twitching and know she had another fit so I did take her to the vet and he put her on Phenobarbital now in Sept I left the house for 2hours came back and she could not walk I checked her eyes they were fine no twitching after 6 hours she could walk not normal she leans to the right and trips on her own feet and she falls alot and their is a tilt to her head now , it has been almost a month and no improvement she is still the same . If this is Vestibular Syndrome and not seizures can the phenobarbital do more harm ?

Holly Nash, DVM October 28, 2011 at 8:38 am

Nancy: I am sorry to hear your dog has this condition. Without doing a thorough exam, including a neurological exam, it would not be possible for me to tell you whether the signs you see are due to possible brain damage from a seizure, the result of a small stroke, vestibular syndrome, or another cause. I would recommend that you have your dog examined by your veterinarian. Phenobarbital would not have any adverse effects on a dog with vestibular syndrome. I wish you and your dog the very best.

Kim December 15, 2011 at 4:31 pm

My 14 year old Lab gave me a scare today! She suddenly paniced, unable to get up…could not walk! I took her to the vet immediatly thinking I wouldn’t be bringing her home. My vet was confident it is Vestibular Syndrome after shaking her head she would fell down while we were there. He gave her an injection of Dexamethasone to reduce the inflamation of the nerves She is resting well and now walking much better so there does seems to be improvement. Special dinner of boiled chicken tonight!
I have a follow up with the Dr. tomorrow.

Donna January 12, 2012 at 3:31 pm

My 11 year-old Lab mix started panting and pacing back and forth/walking in circles the week before Christmas. The vet said it was due to her being in pain, due to arthritis. We have had her on arthritis medication, as well as Joint Enhancers, Fish Oil, etc. for months. So, he prescribed pain medication. It is now three (3) weeks later, she is still eating, drinking and sleeps during the day/night, but is still panting and pacing. She walks into corners and just stands there. I told my vet weeks ago that I thought she had had a stroke, but they insisted actions were due to her being in pain and that they had done a neurological test on her, as well as blood work that all came back okay. It is breaking my heart to see her like this. Is there still a chance she will get better?

Jude Anne Gossin April 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm

This is good to know. I have a 14.5-yrs-old dog and she is portraying these symptons. I had her checked out and she is fine. This article was rather calming.

Diana Fetterman May 6, 2012 at 7:52 am

I have a almost 17 yr old dachshund who is deaf and blind and now has old age vestibular disease. She is eating very well and drinking also but now her head is really tilted to the right and she has a hard time drinking water so I help her by making sure the bowl is full to the top and sometimes I hold her right ear up so it doesn’t get wet. She stumbles around in circles and sometimes it takes her a while to get comfortable as she also has arthritis in her back leg. She actually wears herself out by all this circling, I hold her for a while and then she gets so tired she falls asleep. The fact that she is eating and drinking well keeps me thinking she isn’t ready to go yet but it is hard to see her like this.She just had a steroid shot and an antibiotic shot at the vet last Friday so it is just almost 3 days but I haven’t seen a change yet in her head tilt. I will get another shot for her in 2 weeks so I am hoping she will come out of this. It does break your heart especially because she is deaf and blind as well.

Alan February 1, 2013 at 2:05 pm

My 12 1/2 year old German Shepherd apparently had a milder than average bout with vestibular disease recently. I initially took her to emergency, then a follow up at my vet. After a few days it was slowly improving. I then took her to rehab clinic where they perform acupuncture. Despite promising nothing that treatment immediately cleared up ALL the remaining symptoms (other than occasional lingering head shaking). I was amazed. I assume it somehow relieved pressure on the affected area. Sharing in case anyone else may benefit from giving it a try.

Kim August 8, 2014 at 10:38 pm

My tiny yorkie, Teddy, just turned two years old. Two months ago I notice the servere tilt, spinning, and darty eyes. I rushed him to the vet and the blood results showed nothing. I followed up with my doctor and she said that is could possibly be CVS. He was put on strong medicine and he seem to have gotten better and straighten out a bit. I went away for the weekend and borded him at the vet. When I picked him up he seemed worse. I decided to get a second opinion from someone out of town. The vet suspects the same CVS issue. Unfortunately, she also thinks that is might be something more serious like brain issues. She directed me to a neurologist for further exploring. I decided not to go down that path because he is so little (3.5 pounds.) If there was a brain issue, then all that could be done is surgery on the head and which I don’t believe I would let my Theodore suffer through. The misery he would go through would be to painstakenly unforgivable to the point that I don’t belive it is an option for us. I want my boy to be happy and healthy. The vet gave him six weeks on a strong antibiotic and if he doesn’t respond then I am afraid there is nothing else we can do for him. All he does is run in circles or snuggles on my lap with his sore side protected against me. I am not sure if this is a life I want for him. A dog should be a dog and not just an animal I have to carry around all the time. I would not mind at all carrying him around for the rest of his life but what quality would that be? Is that even fair?

Melissa R. August 11, 2014 at 11:23 am

Kim, I am very sorry to read about what you are going through with Teddy. CVS in a 2 year old is a bit odd, it normally occurs in older dogs. I do hope the antibiotics help him and he pulls through.

paula October 9, 2014 at 4:33 pm

Kim so sorry to hear about Teddy, our Max is just 4 yrs and he too came down with this. Ailment. He is a beautiful Boston terrier. He is on clavamox for 2 weeks twice a day. Some days he looks better than others. Right now its mainly his head tilt and his sluggishness around stairs hope he gets better.

barry November 15, 2014 at 3:56 am

One morning My shitsu cross terrier couldn’t walk on his back legs and he just kept sitting down.but after an hour he was walking but both of his back legs were like they were drunk poor thing…He now walks a lot better but still has the wobble at the back and shakes when this happens as he is most certainly scared….but he gets on with it and has lots of rest

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