What Is Vestibular Disease in Dogs?

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on December 04, 2021
3 min read

Vestibular disease is a term for anything unusual affecting the vestibular portion of the nervous system. The central nervous system, including the inner ear, middle ear, and some brain parts, is affected, as it is a part of the vestibular system.

The vestibular system is a type of sensory system. Thus, it is responsible for the sense of spatial awareness and balance. Vestibular disease is also called the old dog's disease, as it mostly affects senior dogs.

The symptoms of this disease mimic life-threatening conditions such as a stroke. However, it is treatable. 

Various factors cause vestibular disease in dogs. This sudden disturbance of balance is caused by inner or middle ear infections, ear injury, or tumors.

Here are other potential causes of the disease.

  • Inflammation in the central nervous system
  • Cancer
  • Ear tumor
  • Stroke
  • Seizures
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Trauma to any part of the vestibular system
  • Congenital malformations (congenital disabilities)
  • Secretory otitis media (wax build-up in the ear)

Symptoms of vestibular disease in dogs are acute and immediate - they don’t come on slowly. 

Your dog will be wobbly and disoriented if they have vestibular disease. 

Other symptoms include dizziness, or nausea, along with:

  • Head tilt to one side
  • Vomiting
  • Drooling
  • Rolling or leaning to one side
  • Ataxia (abnormal walking)
  • Walking in a circle 
  • Rapid eye movements 
  • Rapid head swaying 
  • Sudden loss of balance

The vet will look at your dog’s medical history and symptoms, and will order a urine test.

Sometimes, the diagnostic testing for vestibular disease in your dog includes measuring blood pressure and taking x-rays of the head to examine the middle and inner ears.

Your vet may also suggest magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans to look for the presence of a tumor.

The treatment of this disease depends on the cause. For example, if an ear infection causes vestibular disease in your dog, treatment of the infection will improve the associated symptoms.

If you take your dog to the vet, they may give your dog Benadryl, which is an antihistamine (blocks H-1 receptors in the blood vessels), or prescribe meclizine. They may also prescribe meclizine, which is another antihistamine and antiemetic.

In addition to helping manage allergic reactions and symptoms, Benadryl also decreases anxiety and anorexia in dogs. Besides this, Benadryl will reduce the severity of head tilts in dogs with vestibular disease. It also helps calm your dog. In addition, the medicine is generally safe. However, if your dog experiences any side effects, you should immediately consult your vet. 

If the symptoms are severe, the dog gets IV fluids, sedatives, and anti-nausea medications. These medicines help reduce anxiety and panic in dogs. 

Once the symptoms start improving, the dog begins to recover from the disease.

If your dog does not have severe symptoms, most will improve within 72 hours. The head tilt may take longer to improve. If you notice that other symptoms haven’t gone away, consult your vet. 

At-Home Treatment

Taking good care of your dog can help them recover from vestibular disease. That includes making sure they eat and drink and that the environment is safe for them. 

Ensure that your dog stays in a confined area where they can’t topple over. Remove any sharp objects that could hurt your dog. A rug will help them to not slip. 

If your dog loses their appetite, hand-feed them. You can also tuck a blanket or towel under their belly to help them maintain balance.

Is Vestibular Disease in Dogs Serious?

Vestibular disease in dogs has stroke-like symptoms, but the disease itself is not serious. Most dogs recover within two to three weeks, depending on the severity of the disease.