Pet Education

Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome: When to Suspect this Problem in Your Dog

Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome

Old dog vestibular syndrome is a benign condition that affects the balance (ie “vestibular”) system of older dogs. There are, however, a lot of other conditions that can cause similar signs, so it’s important to know when to suspect this simple condition versus something more serious. Of course, your primary care veterinarian will help you sort things out but it never hurts to understand a little about what’s going on.

by Stacey Sullivan, VMD
Diplomate American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (Neurology)

What is Vestibular Syndrome?

First of all, it’s important to realize that “vestibular syndrome” is not a specific diagnosis. Instead, it is a set of symptoms seen when there is dysfunction of the vestibular system.

Part of the vestibular system is in the inner ear and part is in the brain; Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome affects solely the inner ear portion. When a veterinarian performs a neurologic examination, he or she is looking for symptoms that will point for sure to either the inner ear or the brain. Many times, however, this determination cannot be made from the examination alone and further tests (such as an MRI) might be indicated to know for sure. Since these tests are expensive and require anesthesia, dog owners reasonably want to have an idea when they are really necessary.

Telltale signs of Vestibular Syndrome

Signs of a problem with the vestibular system look similar regardless of the underlying cause. These signs include a head tilt, imbalance or drunken gait, and sometimes abnormal eye movements (nystagmus) and nausea, vomiting or drooling. Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome is characterized by the very sudden onset of these signs.

Duration + Severity: Symptoms might progress over a short period of time (a day) but then they stabilize and improve on their own, usually starting about 48 hours after the onset of signs. The dog may be left with a residual head tilt or slight balance problem, but within a few weeks, is typically back to about 90% of his or her normal self. Other conditions that affect the vestibular system (such as a brain tumor, encephalitis, inner ear infection or hypothyroidism) will typically come on more gradually, wax and wane in severity and ultimately slowly get worse over days to weeks.

Strokes: Sometimes a stroke will cause a sudden onset of vestibular signs and superficially mimic Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome. However, most dogs with a stroke will have findings on the neurologic examination that point to a problem in the brain rather than the inner ear, eliminating Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome from consideration.

What to do if you suspect your dog has Vestibular Syndrome

So when should a dog owner suspect Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome? The answer is when an older (7+ yr) dog exhibits a sudden onset of head tilt, imbalance, or nausea that progresses over no more than a day or so. If this happens to your dog, he or she should be examined by your primary care veterinarian.

Basic bloodwork and blood pressure screening can eliminate easily diagnosed conditions and then very often a wait-and-see approach will be taken. If the symptoms improve without relapse, Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome is likely and no further tests are necessary. If symptoms come on gradually or if they worsen over time, then referral to a neurologist may be necessary for further diagnostic testing.

For more information on Old Dog Vestibular Disease, please contact our Neurology Department at (818) 244-7977.

Animal Specialty Group

DVM, Diplomate American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (Neurology)

Dr. Stacey Sullivan received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from North Carolina State University in 1993. She moved to Auburn University for her internship, followed by a residency in neurology and neurosurgery at the University of Georgia.