Ask Dr. Rod: What is Vestibular Disease?

Do you remember the game of two or more kids (usually) placing their forehead on the end of a baseball bat with the other end touching the ground? As rapidly as possible, they spin around 10 times, keeping their foreheads touching the bat’s end. Then they try to run a predetermined distance toward a finish line? The whole concept of this is to make you dizzy by disrupting your vestibular system and your sense of balance. Who gets seasickness or motion sickness? I am not ashamed to say I have suffered from this.

Well, sometimes our pets (both dogs and cats) can suffer from vestibular disease and the same dizzy feeling. (Hopefully, not from spinning on the bat.) In fact, most times when your pet suffers from this malady it is idiopathic, meaning we are not 100% sure why their vestibular system is affected. Inner ear infections, possible masses, a history of trauma, certain drugs, and in dogs, hypothyroidism (low thyroid levels), can create the symptoms one may witness with vestibular disease.

The most common symptom that is first observed is a noticeable head tilt and incoordination. The pet may seem disoriented. They may act drunk (a common cause of vestibular problems in college students). As an observant owner you may notice what is called nystagmus which is a “twitching” of the eye either in a horizontal or rotary type fashion. The pet’s gait and the way they walk may be compromised and they may want to “hug” the wall when moving.

The diagnosis of this disease is usually by exclusion of other causes through history, blood and urine testing, radiographs, and possibly even a CT Scan or MRI. This problem tends to occur in older pets especially in the case of our canine friends. In fact, in some literature it is called “Old Age Vestibular Disease.”

Although this disease can be very disturbing and alarming to you, and even incapacitating to your pets in the more severe cases, the prognosis for recovery and improvement is quite good.

Your furry, dizzy friend may be placed on anti-nausea medication and/or sedatives initially.  Antibiotics are often used, just in case there may be a inner ear infection that can’t be ruled out. Keeping your pet in a smaller confined area with food and water close at hand, and providing support while walking may be needed especially when having to navigate stairs. In most cases, symptoms start to resolve in 3-5 days with continued gradual improvement over a couple of weeks. Many pets seem to adapt quite rapidly to their dizziness by “looking out to the horizon,” much like we are told when on that rocking boat. Though this condition is not fun for us as pet parents, or fun for our pets, the vast majority make a complete recovery with some time.

So the next time you play a game,  get on a carnival ride, set sail on the open waters, or imbibe a little to excess and experience that imbalance and nausea for a short period of time you will be able to sympathize with your pet. However, in these scenarios we created our own vestibular malfunction. Imagine that you don’t know why this is occurring and won’t go away. I can sympathize with my patients with this problem. People can experience this same “disease” and it is not fun. I know, several years ago I was incapacitated for about three days with the room spinning. Fortunately, like our pets, we do recover.

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