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Old Dog Vestibular Disease vs Stroke

Vestibular Disease vs Stroke in Old Dogs

Old dog vestibular disease vs stroke is something to keep into consideration when old dogs develop certain symptoms. Every year, a plethora of old dogs are rushed at vet offices with the concern that they have had a stroke. All of a sudden they start walking like drunks and with their heads tilted. Their owners panic and feel terrified. However, there is another more common, but less known about and less concerning condition that mimics stroke's symptoms. This condition is known as vestibular disease.

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Old dog vestibular disease

Old Dog Vestibular Disease

The vestibular system is a sensory system which role is to maintain the dog’s balance and normal orientation relative to the earth’s gravity.

Simply stated, the vestibular system has two main functions: maintaining balance by stabilizing the position of the head and maintaining a steady visual image by stabilizing the eyes when the head moves.

By definition, vestibular disease refers to non-contagious, non-progressive and fairly benign, but sudden disturbance of balance.

The condition affects the nerves responsible for coordinating the messages between the dog’s eyes and inner ears with the dog’s body. In a nutshell, the condition scrambles those messages to a certain degree.

Because the condition is more common in older dogs, it is also referred to as ‘’old dog vestibular syndrome’’.

Causes of Old Dog Vestibular Disease

What causes vestibular disease is still not very clear. Possible causes include middle or inner ear infections, perforated ear drums, using drugs with known ear toxicities, viral infections, traumas and injuries (neck and head) and tumors.

In spite of the previously mentioned cause, in most cases no specific cause is found. Therefore the condition is usually referred to as idiopathic, which means the causative agent is either not known or cannot be determined.

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When the cause is unknown, the condition is called ‘’idiopathic vestibular syndrome." Cases of idiopathic vestibular syndrome are characterized by sudden onset of clinical signs followed by rapid improvement with little or no medical intervention.

Depending on where the problem occurs, there are two types of vestibular disease: peripheral vestibular disease – when the problem is localized in the inner ear and central vestibular disease – when the problem is localized in the brain.

Symptoms of Old Dog Vestibular Disease 

old dog vestibular disease

The signs of vestibular disease have a sudden onset and can be quite dramatic. Common signs of vestibular disease include: loss of balance – circling, stumbling, staggering, falling down, rolling around. There may also be a visible head tilt, usually at an angle of 45 degrees.

Affected dogs may develop nausea, vomiting and unusual eye movements, typical horizontal, back and forth movements. Excessive thirst and loss of bladder and/or bowel control may also be present..

Affected dogs may not show all of the above stated symptoms, but most dogs will definitely show at least two symptoms – loss of balance and unusual eye movement.

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Old Dog Vestibular Disease vs Stroke

As previously mentioned, vestibular disease is often confused with stroke. Therefore it is important to know that dogs with stroke, besides loss of balance, head tilt and unusual eye movements will also have other symptoms that are not seen is vestibular disease.

Those symptoms include loss of vision, loss of hearing, confusion, excessive drooling paralysis and loss of consciousness.

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At the Vet's Office

The veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination and base the diagnosis on medical history and clinical signs. The vet will take into consideration three criteria, the dog’s age, the sudden onset of signs and the lack of detectable cause.

If needed, the veterinarian may order additional diagnostic procedures, such as blood and urine tests, head radiographs, brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) testing, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT).

The goal of these additional diagnostic procedures it to either rule out other diagnosis or help find out the disease’s initial cause.

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Old dog vestibular disease is fortunately a self-limiting condition which means it cures on its own with time. However, this does not change the fact that dogs suffering from vestibular disease need medical attention.

Old Dog Vestibular Disease Treatment 

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If the veterinarian was able to find the cause or trigger for the condition, then the treatment is focused on addressing the cause. For example, ear infections are treated with antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids. Some causes, like tumors need to be surgically addressed. Unfortunately, some tumors cannot be operated.

Dogs diagnosed with idiopathic vestibular disease are usually treated at home. At home, the affected dog needs to be confined to an area and not allowed to climb stairs and furniture.

All unnecessary activities only increase the risk of falling and breaking bones or further injuring. To make the healing time easier, the dog will need some supportive care – assistance to walk, eat, drink and potty. Hospitalization is only recommended for dogs at risk of dehydration because of excessive vomiting.

The majority of dogs diagnosed with vestibular disease recover within approximately 2 weeks. Usually all symptoms fade away, but it is not uncommon for some symptoms (like the head tilt or mild coordination issue) to linger. More often than not, the lingering symptoms do not affect the dog’s quality of life.

Dogs that have recovered from an episode of vestibular disease have an increased of suffering from other episodes. The following vestibular disease episodes tend to be quite similar to the first one in both duration and severity.

Preventing Old Dog Vestibular Disease

No existing treatment can ultimately prevent your dog from having a vestibular syndrome episode. However, additional episodes in recovering dogs can be prevented by using high-quality nutrition enriched with omega-3 fatty acids, minerals and vitamins supplements and using complementary health practices like physiotherapy and acupuncture. Consult with a vet of holistic vet for help.

About the Author

Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia. She is a certified nutritionist and is certified in HAACP food safety system implementation.

ivana crnec

She currently practices as a veterinarian in Bitola and is completing her postgraduate studies in the Pathology of Domestic Carnivores at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Zagreb, Croatia.

Ivana’s research has been published in international journals, and she regularly attends international veterinary conferences.

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