Vestibular Syndrome aka Vestibular Disease in Your Dog
We wrote this blog to share a terrifying experience that might help other pet parents. Vestibular Syndrome can happen to any pup. It does not discriminate. Even with years of pet health research, I had never heard of it until it happened to our family. You will learn in this blog and through our links that it is a common occurrence. Vestibular Syndrome can have multiple root causes. I hope the following helps raise awareness. If it ever does occur to your pup, know that you will get through it!
IMAGINE going from 0 to 128 miles per hour in just 3.5 seconds straight up to a 45-story height then dropping 400 feet in a dizzying 270-degree spiral. Kingda Ka is one of two roller coasters in the world that can give you that kind of thrill. But did you know that dogs can experience that same disoriented, unbalanced, and nauseous experience if they get Vestibular Syndrome?
My Maru was stricken with this disorder recently. I walked in the door and instead of jumping off the couch to meet me, she fell. The dizziness must have been overwhelming and she began to vomit. The onset was sudden, and I was clueless to what was happening. She lost balance – walked with a staggered gait and kept falling. By day two, her head tilted to one side and her eyes twitched and rapidly darted back and forth.
Rewind to a few days prior when we ran into a friend of ours who was very upset about her own dog. She told us that he possibly had a stroke. After a thorough examination he was diagnosed with having a vestibular episode. When Maru exhibited some of the same symptoms that she had mentioned, I called her immediately. What were the chances that this was now happening to my pup too?
If your dog has these symptoms, please call your Vet immediately!
Awareness of this syndrome is especially important for any pet parent that has a senior pet. There are lots of good articles written on the subject, but I’d like to share some practical advice on how to get through this scary time.
What is Vestibular Syndrome?
It’s a neurological disease that:
1) affects how one perceives their body’s spatial orientation (knowing whether you are upside down, standing up straight, falling, etc.)
2) prevents the eyes from following moving objects without becoming dizzy.
The most common causes of vestibular disease are: middle ear infection (peripheral); brain lesion (central); or idiopathic (unknown). If it’s a brain lesion, there will likely be hints in the initial clinical exam like eyes moving up and down rather than back and forth. Of course, an MRI scan will be needed to determine a definitive diagnosis.
Although vestibular symptoms mimic those of a stroke, vascular disease is rare in pets. And, while not medically conclusive, you can perform a simple test. Take your pet’s paw and turn it over. If he quickly flips it back over, it is most likely middle ear or idiopathic in origin.
If the syndrome is determined to be peripheral in nature, it is a problem with the inner ear receptor organs (responsible for balance) that become infected and medical treatment is the course of action.
Lastly, if the cause is deemed to be idiopathic or of unknown cause and spontaneous origin, the good news is the condition is most always temporary and shows improvement within 72 hours with almost full recovery within two weeks.
Thankfully, Maru’s condition was idiopathic. While it was an exhausting and stressful three days, you could visibly see the symptoms improve by the hour. Make no mistake, this so-called “old dog syndrome” is a scary disease. And while it’s more common in older dog’s, they can be any age when it occurs.
WHAT TO DO
Safety First One of the first things to do is make a safe space for your dog by gaiting staircases, putting down rubber mats for more sure-footed walking, and clearing a pathway to food or favorite resting spot. You may even need to crate your dog to ensure they have a space free from bright lights. The rapid eye movement makes them very nauseous.
Transporting A lightweight collapsible garden cart from Home Depot was an inexpensive life saver. Layered with blankets and her favorite pillow, it made the perfect portable bed (just make sure they do not try to jump out). It was the perfect height for her to recline and still see her surroundings and let me keep a vigilant eye on her.
Going outside was problematic since we live one story up but carrying my 35 lb. baby was a labor of love. I could not have lived without my backpack from Ruffwear. By grabbing onto the strap, I could lift her up and help her balance and walk. It was also invaluable in that it allowed me to support her body weight, so she could do her “business”. Later we discovered these harnesses that would have be a life saver too.
A pet stroller was problematic as well. I needed one now, but EVERY store in Chicago had none in-stock for dogs larger than 25lbs. I couldn’t wait to buy online. Instead, I found a sturdy baby bassinet stroller at a second-hand store that did the trick.
Food and Water
Throughout the course of this debilitating disease, it’s essential your pet eat and most importantly stay hydrated which is not easy when you’re dizzy and nauseous. Hand-feeding is recommended since it minimizes head movement. Since dog’s eat by smell, try grilling meats. The aroma may just be too enticing for them to resist. This was a tip from our vet, Dr. Jerslid and recently passed it onto a client for her sick dog. She emailed us to let us know that it worked. It is not full proof, but if it woks even 50% of the time that is better than none.
If your pet won’t drink, then you must take them to the Vet as soon as possible for a Subcutaneous (SQ) fluid pack which infuses nutrient fluids under the skin from where it can be slowly absorbed into the bloodstream. Sometimes it takes more than one go at it, and they can get them daily.
Maru is very familiar with SQ fluids and they are super easy to get. They always give her a little boost when she is under the weather. Just like humans, being dehydrated can make you feel bad and it’s very dangerous. Pay attention to your pet’s gums. If they are on the dry side or white-ish, they may be getting dehydrated. This is not the only sign, but something that’s easy to check often.
For dizziness, nausea, and vomiting, the drug Cerenia is commonly prescribed. It can also be injected first for more immediate relief. But if you want a holistic treatment try NUX VOMICA 30c pellets which you can find at any health food store.
Prior to this event, Maru had been seeing holistic veterinarian Dr. Dena Jersild (Chicago) for incontinence issues. Since her specialties include chiropractic neurology, applied kinesiology, acupuncture, herbal therapy, and nutritional counseling, I sought help now for this attest malady. It was mesmerizing to watch her deftly stroke and massage, especially Maru’s head. She said that with this disease the right and left side of the brain becomes unbalanced and she was restoring equilibrium to these areas. After the treatment, Maru was more alert and livelier, prancing around the office and even eating a treat. Hours later she was taking her evening walk.
One of the strangest things that happened during this ordeal was that in addition to not shaking her head, doing her ritualistic circling, or jumping… Maru had stopped barking for three days. Your dog may exhibit some behavior that is out of the ordinary, too. Keep a close eye and take note of anything unusual and see if it resolves itself. But remember, the head tilt may be permanent. And I embraced the tilt, it added character. If my best friend was feeling better, her head can be anywhere it wants to.
*There is only one way to know 100% what the “episodes” are stemming from and that is an MRI
Signs of Vestibular Syndrome:
- Head tilt
- Difficulty walking or balancing
- Falling over – one side only
- Nystagmus – eyes moving back and forth
- Wide stance
- Loss of appetite due to nausea from balance problems
- Vomiting – also resulting from nausea
- Gentle exercise using a harness
- Physical Therapy/Massage
- Reiki, T-Touch, or Energy Healing
To further your research please read the following: