Canine idiopathic vestibular disease can be very scary for pet parents, as symptoms can often mimic serious and life-threatening conditions like a stroke or brain tumor. This disease, also known as ‘Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome’ and ‘Old Dog Disease’, affects a dog’s balance and eye movement and causes a variety of concerning symptoms. Ear infections or a stroke could be a factor in the sudden onset of vestibular syndrome symptoms but there are ways to treat this syndrome and often, most symptoms will disappear in a couple weeks.

The vestibular system is affected by this syndrome and like with other animals (humans included), this system is responsible for balance and spatial awareness. There are two components to this system: the peripheral located in the middle/inner ear and the central component located in the brain. Because the peripheral component is located in the middle/inner ear, ear infections can have an effect on balance and may lead to the sudden onset of the vestibular syndrome.

Symptoms of this syndrome include:

  • A near-constant head tilt (which could range from minor to extreme)
  • Being dizzy and falling down
  • Nausea, vomiting, no appetite or desire to drink water
  • Turning in circles or rolling
  • Being wobbly and having issues while walking
  • Disoriented, no coordination, falls easily
  • Rapid and irregular eye movements

Because the symptoms of this syndrome are so similar to a stroke, it’s important to get your dog checked out by a vet as soon as possible. A vet will be able to determine if your dog had a stroke or has this vestibular syndrome and can help you move forward with the next steps.

Unfortunately, it’s not entirely known what exactly causes this syndrome in many dogs. Idiopathic is a medical term that means a disease or condition has an unknown cause and this syndrome often happens spontaneously and seemingly out of nowhere. As mentioned, ear infections may have an effect, which is why your vet might prescribe antibiotics.

But brain tumors, infections in the brain, or head trauma could also be the cause. While those causes are very serious, they are also much less common and there are ways to tell if the brain has been affected and if a tumor, infection, or trauma is the cause. Rapid eye movement is a symptom of this syndrome but in most cases, eyes will move side to side. But if the eyes are moving up and down, the problem is often in the brain. If the dog has a head tremor, weakened jaw, diminished mental capabilities, or excessive trouble with their limbs, the brain is affected. Your vet will be able to determine if your dog’s brain is affected.

All of this sounds very scary (and would be scarier in person!) but your vet will be able to make a definitive diagnosis and treatment plan. A CT scan or MRI, ear and/or full physical exam, and blood/urine tests are often done to test for the cause and what may be going on. If no cause is found for the syndrome, then supportive care is the best treatment. That includes anti-nausea medications, sedatives, fluids, and patience. For many dogs, the symptoms of idiopathic vestibular syndrome will be awful for a couple days but will start to get better after a while (a few days to a couple weeks). Support devices, like harnesses, can also help your dog during this time, as walking or standing up will be difficult. They may be left with a slight head tilt but many other symptoms should start to lessen.

Older dogs are often most affected by this syndrome and symptoms usually happen suddenly. Younger dogs and cats can be affected by this syndrome; for cats, as you might imagine, the syndrome is known as Feline Vestibular Disease. For any animal, the sudden onset of this syndrome/disease can be really scary for the animal and owner. The good news is that there are ways to help your pet and patience will be incredibly important.

Idiopathic Vestibular Disease, as far as I can tell, is the most common form of vestibular disease and isn’t particularly painful (just confusing and a bit nauseating. While it can be terrifying and sad to see your beloved pet go through such a hard time, patience and love can make all the difference, as symptoms should lessen within a few days. In addition to patience, there’s always a reason to be cautiously optimistic. Talking with your vet can help with treatment plans and the path forward.