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Dogs 101: Understanding vestibular disease

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After my dog battled vestibular disease, I wanted to take some time to share some more information about this frightening condition. Please note that I am not a veterinarian. If you suspect your dog may be suffering from vestibular, please consult an animal medical professional. This article is based on research and information I gathered from professionals during my dog's experience with this condition.

Vestibular disease is similar to vertigo in humans. Dogs become dizzy, disoriented and unstable. During the worst of the symptoms, some dogs may not even be able to stand.

The vestibular system is responsible for keeping an animal oriented in space (ie. which way is up, down, etc.). Vestibular disease / vestibular syndrome occurs when this system is damaged or irritated.

There are three types of vestibular disease. Peripheral vestibular disease is generally caused by damage to the inner ear, such as a punctured ear drum or a severe ear infection. Central vestibular disease is more severe and generally involves damage to the nervous system, including tumors or strokes. The most common is idiopathic vestibular disease. Idiopathic means "no known cause." This form will generally be diagnosed when the others have been ruled out.

Vestibular disease generally comes on very quickly. Dogs are generally displaying the worst symptoms within 24 - 48 hours of onset.

The trademark signs of vestibular are loss of balance, a head tilt and nystagmus (unusual, involuntary eye movement). The nystagmus usually presents as a quick side-to-side motion, but some dogs may have rotary nystagmus, meaning their eyes will rotate to one side before snapping back to the starting position and rotating again.

At the beginning, you may notice some inexplicable clumsiness. Your dog may look like he is coming out of anesthesia. Within the next couple days, your dog will likely display a more severe loss of balance and may even fall over. Falling is usually worse when the dog quickly changes his line of sight. For example, if your dog is looking ahead and suddenly looks up, down or behind him, this may cause a fall. Smooth floors, such as wood or tile, may be very difficult to walk on.

Dogs may also experience nausea and lose their desire to eat.

Severe symptoms generally resolve within two to four days. During this time, keep your dog calm and safe. Block off stairs to avoid accidental tumbles. Place carpeting to increase traction on slick tile floors. Your dog's mind may be willing but his body just may not be able to keep up, so try to reduce urges to chase squirrels or play with toys. You may need to place extra padding in your dog's kennel or around his bed as walking on unstable surfaced, like a bed or couch, may prove difficult and could lead to a fall or hard landing. Move or protect sharp corners, like those on coffee tables, to prevent your dog from falling on it.

Many veterinarians are unable to diagnose vestibular disease, but they can help rule out other potential causes. An animal neurologist is likely your best bet in diagnosing this condition. When you go to the vet or neurologist, he or she will likely test your dog's reflexes, examine the ears and look for the head tilt and nystagmus. If nothing points to an obvious source for the condition, an MRI will likely be recommended. After gathering as much information as possible, your neurologist will recommend the best course of action.

If your dog is diagnosed with idiopathic vestibular disease, there is unfortunately little you can do besides wait it out. You may give your dog motion sickness pills to combat the nausea.

Many pets will make a full or near-full recovery from idiopathic vestibular disease. Within a few weeks, your dog should be able to get around on his own and be able to engage in easy, controlled exercise. Full recovery may take four months or longer. Work with a neurologist or canine rehabilitation service to learn exercises you can do with your dog to challenge and improve his balance and depth perception. Even dogs who make a full recovery may still display a minor head tilt.

This disease is very frightening for the the pet parent because the symptoms come out of nowhere and move quickly, there is little known about the condition and little you can do to help your dog recover. However, I would encourage you to stay positive and remain patient because most likely your dog will recover and be able to live a very fulfilling life.

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