What is old dog disease? Vestibular disease in senior dogs


A few weeks ago, we prepared to say goodbye to Cooper.

That Friday morning, he woke up, picked at his breakfast, and went outside. He seemed slow. Off. A bit disoriented. Then, over the course of the morning, he declined swiftly. He couldn’t walk well, and he wobbled and fell when he tried. He became confused and seemed lost in the rooms he’s lived in for the last seven years. He wouldn’t eat. It got worse and worse while we waited for the vet to call us back.

Little did we know, what seemed like the end–a major stroke, we thought–turned out to be something casually referred to as “old dog disease,” and Cooper would be back to his normal self within a couple days.

It was terrifying and jarring. Here’s what we learned as we went through a bout of vestibular disease with Cooper, just in case you ever find yourself in this position.

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First, a disclaimer:

I am not a veterinarian. I’m not a vet tech or medical professional. I have zero training in this. This post simply serves to share our experience and the research I did afterwards to learn more about vestibular disease in dogs. If you suspect anything is going on with your dog, whether it’s this or a stroke, seizure, etc., call your vet or head to an emergency vet immediately.

What is the vestibular system?

As I said, I’m no vet, so here’s what the docs have to say:

The vestibular system is a complex set of structures and neural pathways that serves a wide variety of functions that contribute to our sense of proprioception and equilibrium. These functions include the sensation of orientation and acceleration of the head in any direction with associated compensation in eye movement and posture. These reflexes are referred to as the vestibulo-ocular and vestibulospinal reflexes, respectively. The centrally located vestibular system involves neural pathways in the brain that respond to afferent input from the peripheral vestibular system in the inner ear and provide efferent signals that make these reflexes possible. Current data suggest that the vestibular system also plays a role in consciousness, and dysfunctions of the system can cause cognitive deficits related to spatial memory, learning, and navigation.

Via https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532978/

So, basically, it’s the system in vertebrates like us and our dogs that helps create a sense of balance and helps us coordinate our body’s movements in balance. When the system is out of whack, so then is our balance and coordination.

What triggers vestibular disease in dogs?

Often called canine idiopathic vestibular syndrome, the word “idiopathic” is our clue. There’s no known underlying cause. There are some suspected causes. For instance, since the vestibular system includes the parts of the ear, a severe ear infection can trigger the disease.

While the symptoms can seem sudden and severe–we’ll get to those next–the good news is that this is not a progressive disease. In fact, it’s characterized by its resolution, usually over the course of a few days to a few weeks.

What are the symptoms of old dog vestibular disease?

The most common symptom is loss of balance.

This is often sudden and it makes your dog appear to be drunk: stumbling around, tilting to one side, unable to walk in a straight line, and so on. This was the first and most dramatic symptom observed in Cooper. He was SUPER dizzy.

Other symptoms of vestibular disease can include:

  • rapid, unusual, abnormal eye movements or eyes being in an abnormal position
  • head tilt
  • nausea or vomiting
  • normal consciousness

I bolded that last one because it’s really important. If your dog is having a stroke or a seizure, consciousness will be abnormal. It’s a key distinction and something to report to your vet when you call. That said, Cooper didn’t seem “normal” to me. He seemed lost and disoriented. When we mentioned that over the phone to his doc, the vet suggested his dizziness contributed to that disorientation.

Can old dogs recover from vestibular disease?

Despite how terrifying the symptoms seem, this is a piece of good news: Old dogs DO recover from vestibular disease. From what I read, it seems like two to three weeks is pretty standard, but Cooper was actually fine within a week. Even within the first few days, he made remarkable strides in his recovery. We started him on a course of motion sickness medicine–per our vet’s recommendation–and then started feeding him small bits at a time. After a few days, he was exhausted but walking normally. It took a couple more days of rest before he seemed fully back to himself. It’s now been about three weeks, and I’m happy to report he is entirely himself. He’s eating, walking, squeaking toys, thwomping the cats, and taking naps like nothing ever happened.

How long can an old dog live with vestibular disease?

In their paper, Clinical signs, MRI findings and outcome in dogs with peripheral vestibular disease: a retrospective study, researchers reported half the dogs in their study had an incomplete recovery with “with facial nerve dysfunction and head tilt as the most common persistent clinical signs.”

Similarly, a post on the VCA website concludes, “The clinical signs associated with vestibular disease are often most severe during the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Many pets begin to improve within seventy-two hours. The head tilt and stumbling often improve over a seven to ten-day period. Most patients are completely recovered within two to three weeks, although some will have residual symptoms such as a head tilt or mild “wobbling” for life.”

I extrapolate those findings to mean the dogs still lived with the disease, even if they retained some symptoms.

An elderly black lab with a white face sits at an angle away from the camera. He wears a blue collar. The background is light gray.

What can you do for old dog vestibular disease?

While you wait for your dog’s symptoms to resolve, here are some steps you can do to help your pup:

  • Call your vet. No matter what, call your vet. Our vet talked us through it all and made the Dramamine recommendation. Then, they saw Cooper two days later to give him a checkup.
  • Remove obstacles and block stairs. Because your dog is dizzy, off balance, and uncoordinated, the risk of falls and injuries becomes sky high. Put a gate in front of stairs (we have this super easy to move, affordable gate). Move tripping hazards. Consider tossing down a rubber mat on slick floors.
  • Consider a harness. You might find yourself having to help your dog navigate. For Coop, he needed us to support him getting on and off his bed and going outside to go to the bathroom. We’ve used this harness forever and ever, and it worked perfectly for his recovery.
  • Help with food and drink, as needed. We gave away our raised feeder recently. Of course. 🙂 So, we ended up putting Cooper’s dog bowl on top of a box of Pull-ups. It was the exact height that he didn’t have to lean over. We positioned it alongside our cabinets so he was fully supported on one side and could lean to maintain balance.

When no one is home to supervise your old pup, consider confining him or her to a single space without any falling hazards. During this time, Cooper also had a bunch of accidents–I think because getting into position was making him feel even dizzier–so it was helpful to keep him in one space that was easier to clean. For us, that’s our bedroom.

Our biggest challenge was getting him to eat again. The nausea was still bad after a couple days, and we tried all sorts of things. On a whim, I bought a bunch of these I and Love and You stews from the grocery store, and they got him eating again!

Bottom line: This is a scary condition!

If your dog suddenly starts wobbling, becomes dizzy, stops eating, and so on… it’s scary!

And if your dog is elderly, like Cooper, it’s easy to think you might be at the end.

Having been through this now, all I can say is: Take a deep breath. Make sure your dog is physically safe. Then, call your vet. If it turns out to be old dog disease, remember that it should all turn out okay. Be there for your pup; he’s probably pretty scared now, too.

Have you faced this before? Has your dog ever experienced some kind of vestibular dysfunction? How did you handle it? Or, if not, what questions do you still have to be prepared–just in case?

A few posts to complement this one in case you’re caring for a senior pup like Cooper:

Everything You Need to Know About Loving a Senior Dog

Tips to Keep Your Senior Dog Happy, Healthy, and Comfy

The Real Deal on Aging Dogs: The highs, lows, and in-betweens

Images: Jairo Alzate on Unsplash and Ken Reid on Unsplash





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