Owning an older dog is a wonderful experience. The understanding and camaraderie that comes with years spent together is priceless. However, as a beloved pet ages, concern over a catastrophic illness developing also increases. When an older dog develops stroke-like symptoms, it might appear that an owner’s worst fears have been realized, but that is not always the case.
The risk of a dog developing a condition known as idiopathic vestibular disease increases with age. Symptoms of vestibular disease include:
- a head tilt
- unsteadiness or falling while walking
- circling or rolling in one direction
- abnormal eye movements (they flick back and forth, up and down, or rotate in a circle)
- loss of appetite
- nausea and vomiting
Like a stroke, the symptoms of idiopathic vestibular disease seemingly arise out of nowhere. The dog is normal one minute and exhibiting terrifying symptoms the next. Veterinarians are not sure exactly what the underlying cause of idiopathic vestibular disease is, but since the vestibular system (portions of the brain and ear) is critical to our sense of balance, dysfunction there makes a patient feel as if the world is spinning.
A veterinarian typically relies on a combination of the dog’s age, clinical signs, and a physical and neurologic exam that fails to reveal any other significant problems to differentiate idiopathic vestibular disease from other conditions (e.g., inner ear infections, brain tumors, and inflammatory diseases) that cause similar symptoms. In most cases, dogs with idiopathic vestibular disease start to improve over the course of several days to weeks with only symptomatic treatment, which is usually not true for the other problems that adversely affect the vestibular system. When uncertainty over the cause of a dog’s symptoms exists, veterinarians may order blood work, skull x-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and other diagnostic tests to reach a definitive diagnosis.
Treatment for idiopathic vestibular disease includes assistance with eating, drinking, urination, and defecation, keeping the patient clean and comfortable, and when necessary, anti-nausea medications and sedatives or anti-anxiety medications to help the patient relax and sleep. Dogs generally recover most, if not all of their normal function, over the course of several weeks, though in severe cases euthanasia may be necessary when quality of life does not rebound sufficiently. Reoccurrences are possible, but they are generally not as scary as the initial bout since owners recognize the symptoms and know that idiopathic vestibular disease is to blame.