How to Detect Peripheral Vestibular Disease

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Vestibular disease, a balance problem of the inner ear, mainly affects senior dogs.

Symptoms may include any or all of the following: head tilt, nausea, jittery or abnormal eye movements (nystagmus), leaning or walking to one side, loss of balance, circling and stumbling, falling, or vomiting.

What causes this loss of balance is an irritation to the nerves which connect the brain with the inner ear. There are two types of vestibular disease: central vestibular disease, which is not very common, and the more serious condition of the two and peripheral vestibular disease, which originates outside of the central nervous system.

Exactly why does any dog contract vestibular disease? The list is extensive and includes everything from chronic inner and middle ear infections, head injury trauma to loop diuretics, brain tumors and congenital birth defects. But mostly, in senior dogs, it is idiopathic; there is no identifiable root cause.

On the morning of December 24, Zoe, my 12 year old German Shepherd (pictured on the right above), woke up with most of these symptoms. She had a severe head tilt and a terrible loss of balance. She stumbled, fell frequently and had jittery eye movements. I feared she had suffered a stroke. I rushed her to our veterinarian’s emergency room and following a thorough examination and blood tests to rule out a stroke, she stayed in the hospital for two days receiving fluids and rest. The diagnosis was peripheral vestibular disease.

Zoe was able to come home on Christmas Day with only four days of medicine for nausea and a prescription for rest and a limitation of her activities. That was the best Christmas present I have ever received!

Due to the abnormal eye movements, I hand fed her and elevated her feeding and water bowls. She had trouble focusing on the bowls and leaning down to reach them made her nauseous.

There has been visible progress in her recovery daily. The head tilt has diminished, she began eating on her own again and she regained most of her stability while walking. But at times when she shakes water off her body or shakes her head, she loses her balance. We call it her ‘crazy legs’ as a way to acknowledge she still needs a bit more time and a gentle hand to move her outside or onto her bed.

In most dogs, the symptoms fade and the dog will return to normal. But there may be, in cases like Zoe’s, residual effects for months following the initial onset. Patience, comfort and supportive care are the most effective treatments for most dogs with peripheral vestibular disease.

Cindy Dunston Quirk is the Chief Dog Lover at Scout & Zoe’s Natural Antler Dog Chews. Scout & Zoe’s chews are allergy-free and a green, organic, renewable resource created only from 100% naturally shed elk antlers.

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