Is Your Dog Drunk? Recognizing Vestibular Disease In Dogs

vestibular disease in dogs

If your dog starts staggering around as if he’s drunk, it probably doesn’t mean he got into the liquor cabinet.

One of the likely causes of this kind of wobbliness is vestibular disease. It’s very scary when it happens, but in most cases it’s something your dog will recover from in a few days or weeks.

As a dog owner it’s something you should know about so you can be ready for it. Vestibular disease in dogs is quite common and can happen to any dog. Although unusual in puppies (except in cases of congenital vestibular disease), it can affect certain breeds and especially older dogs.

Keep reading to learn how to recognize and deal with vestibular disease in dogs:

  • Signs of a vestibular attack
  • What to do if it happens
  • Treatment options

But first, let’s start with some basics…

What The Vestibular System Does

The vestibular system has peripheral components and central components. The central components are in the brain. The peripheral components of the vestibular system are in the inner ear, but their function isn’t involved in hearing. Instead, they transmit information to the brain, helping to provide your dog with his sense of motion, spatial orientation and balance. The vestibular system coordinates the position of your dog’s head, eyes, neck and limbs in space.

vestibular disease in dogs

The vestibular system in the inner ear is dependent on thousands of extracellular tiny calcium-carbonate minerals known as otoconia for proper function.

On the left side of the image below you’ll see three semi-circular canals that convey messages to the brain about the positioning and movement of the head. There is fluid that should help to tumble the otoconia correctly, and the nerve fibers help register the movement.

Schematic anatomy of the vestibular system in dogs

When calcium carbonate crystals in the vestibulum are displaced from the otolith organis of the inner ear, this disrupts the flow of fluid in the semicircular canal and can cause a false sense of motion. This is what happens with BPPV – benign paroxysmal positional vertigo – which is the most common cause of vestibular disorder. Read more about BPPV below.

What is Vestibular Disease In Dogs?

Vestibular disease in dogs can look like something more serious, like a stroke or brain tumor … but in fact, it’s really a type of vertigo, often caused by a malfunction in some part of the vestibular system.

There are two types of vestibular disease.

Peripheral Vestibular Disease

Peripheral vestibular disease is the more common type of vestibular disease. It occurs in the peripheral vestibular system in the inner ear … and can often be the result of some kind of irritation to the nerves that connect the inner ear with the brain.

Vestibular disease can come on very suddenly (and can be very alarming for the dog’s owner) but it will usually resolve over time.

Breeds that are more prone to vestibular disease include Beagles, German shepherds, Doberman pinschers, Akitas, Tibetan terriers, English cocker spaniels and Smooth Fox Terriers. Older dogs are also more prone to vestibular disease. Puppies can be affected by congenital vestibular disease but may be less affected as they get older.

Central Vestibular Disease

Central vestibular disease is much more serious than the peripheral form, because it starts inside the central nervous system, in the brain.

It can be caused by inflammatory disease, infection, trauma or bleeding in the brain, loss of blood flow, or cancer.

Fortunately it’s quite rare in dogs. However, with any vestibular disease it’s important to have your veterinarian rule out possible causes like brain tumors.

Causes Of Peripheral Vestibular Disease

Vestibular syndrome in dogs can be caused by a number of possible conditions, including:

  • BPPV – benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. This is the most common cause of vertigo and vestibular disorder, especially in older dogs. The displacement of crystals (described above) often results from injury, high intensity exercise, even a misstep off the curb or on a rough trail. It may be secondary to viruses that affect the inner ear, or associated with cephalic or head pain.
  • Chronic inner or middle ear infections
  • Stroke
  • Over-cleaning of the ears, causing perforated eardrum
  • Trauma from head injury or quick movement
  • Labyrinthitis, vestibular neuronitis and other inner ear inflammatory conditions
  • Tumors or polyps
  • Meningoencephalitis
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Certain drugs like amikacen, gentamicin, neomycin and tobramycin can also be a factor
  • Emotional stress can also precipitate vestibular disease

Symptoms Of Vestibular Attack In Dogs

There are many signs your dog may be suffering a vestibular attack:

  • More trouble than normal getting up
  • Trouble placing his paws to stand (proprioceptive deficits)
  • Eyes darting back and forth (nystagmus)
  • Head tilt – slight to extreme
  • Acting dizzy, falling down (like a drunk person)
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Motion sickness
  • Turning in circles or rolling
  • Loss of balance, wavering gait, incoordination
  • Poor depth perception
  • Sensitivity to changes in walking surfaces
  • Loss of appetite due to vertigo
  • Vision/hearing changes
  • Difficulty walking in the dark
  • Trouble focusing or tracking objects with eyes
  • Discomfort from busy visual environments such as traffic, crowds, stores, and patterns
  • Sensitivity to light, glare, and moving or flickering lights
  • Hearing loss, distorted or fluctuating hearing
  • Sensitivity to loud noises or environments
  • Sudden loud sounds may increase symptoms of vertigo, dizziness, or imbalance
  • On neuro check, peripheral reflexes are usually normal

There are several videos on YouTube showing what a vestibular attack can look like. Once on YouTube, search for dog vestibular disease and you’ll find some examples. Although they are very sad and quite upsetting to watch, I encourage you to view them so you can learn to recognize the signs in case it happens to your dog. Here are a couple of examples.

What To Do If Your Dog Has A Vestibular Attack

If you watched any of the videos, you probably saw that the dogs suffering from vestibular disease were usually contained in a small area or lying somewhere comfortable. If your dog is having what looks like a vestibular attack, it’s important to keep him safe so that he doesn’t injure himself.

  • Confine him to a small room or a pen
  • Keep him away from stairs
  • Remove objects he can trip over
  • Use a harness to help him outside when needed

Dogs can get quite distressed, so stay with him and keep him comfortable:

  • Provide supportive bedding
  • Make sure he has water and meals close by
  • Stay close and comfort him to keep him calm

Monitor his symptoms, food and drink.

  • Avoid dehydration (get him IV fluids if necessary)

Diagnosis By Your Veterinarian

Because vestibular syndrome can be confused with other more serious conditions like stroke or a brain tumor, it’s always a good idea to see your holistic vet for a diagnosis.

Ask your vet to rule out other possible diagnoses that might be confused with vestibular disease, such as:

  • Stroke – vestibular symptoms can be very similar to stroke, but eye movements are usually side to side (horizontal) rather than vertical or diagonal as in stroke
  • Damage to the cerebellum of the brain, usually due to restricted blood flow
  • Tick paralysis – caused by neurotoxin not infectious organism
  • Rickettsial diseases (not necessarily tick-borne)
  • Diabetes and blood sugar problems
  • Trauma or injury
  • Toxins
  • Low blood pressure
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Syncopal episode

Like vestibular disease, all of these can come on very fast.

Avoid Conventional Treatment Options

This is a good time to work with a holistic practitioner and avoid conventional treatments.

Conventional veterinarians will likely prescribe vestibular suppressants like antihistamines, steroids, antibiotics, anti-emetics, antiviral drugs and benzodiazepams (valium).

Unfortunately, the three major drug groups used – anticholinergics, antihistamines, and benzodiazepines – are well known to cause adverse effects that are similar to the ones you’re trying to stop when treating vestibular disease!

Instead, there are many natural treatment options that can help your dog recover from vestibular disease.

Natural Alternatives For Vestibular Disease

Even without treatment, many cases of vestibular disease will resolve on their own in a few days or weeks. But there are things you can do to speed your dog’s recovery.

Physical And Energetic Therapies

  • Spinal manipulation or veterinary chiropractic treatment
    • Epley maneuvers (or Canalith Repositioning Procedure) can be effective in treating BPPV by helping move displaced otoconia (crystals or canaliths) through a series of specialized head movements. You may have to find a chiropractor who treats humans for this specialty. Visit National Upper Cervical Chiropractic Association to find an Epley maneuver practitioner
  • To find a veterinary chiropractor, visit the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association.
  • Vestibular rehabilitation uses three principal methods that will treat symptoms of dizziness from self motion or visual stimuli
    • Habituation
    • Gaze stabilization
    • Balance training
  • Canine therapeutic massage
  • Energy treatments like cranio-sacral therapy, Reiki, acupuncture

Homeopathic Remedies

Homeopathy can be very effective in speeding up recovery from vestibular syndrome.  You’ll need to consult a homeopathic vet to prescribe the most appropriate remedy to fit your dog’s specific symptoms. Find a homeopath at The Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy. Most will do phone consults so they don’t have to be local.

The primary remedies used to treat vestibular disease are Conium, Iodine, Cocculus, Rhus Tox, Aesculus, Lachesis, Cylcamen.

Cocculus is often a good choice as it’s a key remedy for motion sickness, dullness, confusion, dizziness, slowness, nausea, headaches, weakness, drunkenness and falling.

If your dog is showing these symptoms you could try Cocculus in a 30C or 200C potency. Give about 3 pellets straight in your dog’s mouth; or dissolve the pellets in spring water and put a few drops on the gums using a dropper or syringe. Give one dose every one to two hours for the first three doses, then give one dose twice daily for three to five days.

Herbs That Can Help

  • Gingko is commonly used – give 500 mg powder or capsule every 8 to 12 hours for dogs 25 to 50 lbs
  • Amla (Indian gooseberry (very high in vitamin C) for dizziness – dogs can have 500 to 1000 mg every 12 hours
  • Ginger root for nausea – give 1 capsule per 20 lbs body weight, 1 to 3 times a day. Read more about ginger for dogs.
  • Inner Ear Balance Herbal FormulaI’ve looked up this formula made for humans and it’s safe to use for your dog.
    • Balances inner ear fluids
    • Minimizes severity of vertigo/dizziness
    • Improves balance
    • Eases tinnitus
    • Alleviates neck stiffness
    • Note: The dosage on the bottle is for a 150 lb human, so adjust for your dog’s weight

In summary, vestibular disease can be very distressing but not usually life-threatening. It’s quite common, often repetitive, and will usually resolve on its own even without any treatment.

Even though it seems severe, your dog can recover and experience good quality of life. It’s certainly not a reason to euthanize your canine companion!

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