Dog Head Tilted & Off-Balance? This may be why…

by Melissa R. on November 5, 2012

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Head Tilt Mocca

Head Tilt Mocca

Last Saturday afternoon, I noticed my 13-year-old Border Collie, Mocca, was starting to LEAN a bit when she was retrieving a ball. I thought it was a bit odd, and kept a closer eye on her. Generally, I am fairly in tune with her, so any small change in her behavior raises a red flag for me. Then I noticed her stumble a bit. I got concerned, and tried a few more retrieves, watching her steadily LEAN to the left as she trotted back. I brought her inside, to tell my boyfriend and see what he thought. After awhile, he too noticed her trip a few times, and start to tilt. Anxiety crept up more and more. I started to panic. What was going on? Was she having a stroke? Was there some sort of tumor? Was she having some sort of reaction to eating something? Was it a reaction from medication she was on for Lyme disease?

I started googling like mad, and soon was a bit soothed. I ruled out side effects from her medication, especially because she had been on it in the past. I ruled out stroke, as apparently, strokes are very rare in dogs. She seemed to FEEL FINE, wasn’t sick at all, and really was quite perky. So, what I settled on was one of two things:

  1. An Inner Ear infection
  2. Canine Vestibular Syndrome, also known as Old Dog Disease

Mocca napping in her crate

Mocca napping in her crate

As it is, I am familiar with Canine Vestibular Syndrome, as my parent’s older Golden Retriever, Annie, had a couple bouts of it in her later years. This seemed the most likely cause, as I did notice Mocca’s eyes darting back & forth, back & forth… Not normal. As time progressed, she got worse. By Sunday morning, she had a hard time standing. This was so terribly difficult to endure for both her and me! It is so hard to see your dog in trouble like this and not be able to do anything. My research showed that likely there was nothing to do but wait it out. Sunday I kept her subdued in her room, or outside in a crate so she could enjoy the beautiful day. I had to hold her up with a harness to go potty all day, and brought the water bowl to her and hand fed her. She was acting perfectly healthy except for her balance problems.

Monday morning arrived and she had not gotten any WORSE. YAY! We were off to the vet that afternoon, and after checking Mocca over, our veterinarian diagnosed like we expected – Canine Vestibular Syndrome. We did get her the antibiotic Clavamox, just in case there was an inner ear infection (her ears looked ok upon inspection). Sometimes vets will give Prednisone to dogs with this problem, but because Mocca is elderly, and her blood work 2 weeks ago had shown slightly elevated Liver Enzymes, we didn’t want to risk any further Liver issues.

Mocca is feeling better! Residual head tilt remains

Mocca is feeling better! Residual head tilt remains

So, we waited it out. We got used to her balance problems, hand fed her and made sure she had water nearby at all times. We also kept her subdued, so that she couldn’t hurt herself falling. She was escorted outside on a harness to potty and walk around, and not allowed up or down any stairs. Little by little she improved!

By Friday, she was doing 85% better! Up and down stairs (though with my hand on her, I think it makes her feel safer) – jumping up on the bed, racing outside to play, eating her food on her own, and barking at the kitten who got too close! She still has a head tilt, but we are hoping that goes away with time as well.

In researching Canine Vestibular Syndrome, I found a lot of stories of dogs MUCH worse than Mocca, whose owners had no idea what was going on and thought their dogs were dying. Some dogs have it much worse, so worse that they can barely stand up, and instead circle, salivate, vomit and altogether can’t function. If your dog is as bad off as that, vet assistance would be a priority so they don’t get dehydrated and have organ failure from there. Mocca was eating, drinking, and not sick at all, so we opted to wait to see our vet on Monday, but I would never have waited if she were sick at all.

Hopefully, this post helps out a few pet owners out there who may also experience this.

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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.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Kim November 5, 2012 at 2:36 pm

My dog Sam, age 19 and a half -huskie mix, had this and it would come back 1-2 times a year. Poor guy, his balance would get really bad and he couldn’t keep food down. We’d have to give him Sub-Q fluids to supplement him during this time, along with the Anti-b’s.
This last time in May 2012, we had to put him down as it was just way too much for him. Sam was really, really old for such a big breed, and would just drop way too much weight when the spells happened. They used to tell us it was either an inner-ear infection or a brain tumor….ugh. I’m glad we treated it as inner-ear infection.
When the spells, come back, as they usually do, consider doing Sub-Q fluids to supplement your dog’s diet as they may not be getting enough fluids during an “episode”. They saved Sam many times. I obtained Lactated ringers through Dr Fosters & Smith’s site, with a script from my Vet. My Vet recommended them and I try to purchase all of my RX supplies from them.
Good luck with your border collie.
Kim – in memory of Sam…

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