Vestibular Disease in Dogs

Dr. Jason Gagné, DVM, DACVIM
By Dr. Jason Gagné, DVM, DACVIM
Updated: 5/14/20242-4 minutes
A little girl holds her smiling black lab close

The symptoms of vestibular disease in dogs can be frightening for owners to witness and usually appear very suddenly. Here is what they are and when you should take your dog to the vet.

Have you noticed your dog staggering, leaning to one side with their head tilted as if the world is spinning around them? Lack of coordination, especially in older dogs, is a cause for concern, and many worried owners fear that either a stroke or a tumor is behind the strange behavior. 

While these are indeed possible causes, and you need to take your pet to the vet as soon as you notice these symptoms, another possible reason why your dog is suddenly unsteady is a syndrome called vestibular disease. Keep reading to find out what it is, how it manifests, and how soon you can expect your pet to get back to normal.

What is Vestibular Disease in Dogs?

Most dogs experience a sudden onset of the symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms of vestibular disease in dogs include: 

  • Disorientation 
  • Reluctance to stand up 
  • Head and/or body tilt to one side 
  • Walking in circles 
  • Rapid, repetitive eye movements (nystagmus) 
  • Imbalance 
  • Falling over 
  • Dog vomiting

Unfortunately, these symptoms are not unique to vestibular disease. There are other illnesses that can manifest similarly, including ear infections, strokes, and tumors. This is why it’s important to visit the vet so they can rule out other underlying conditions.

What Causes Dog Vestibular Disease?

There are two forms of vestibular disease—central and peripheral. Central vestibular disease involves the brain, while peripheral vestibular disease involves the inner ear. Causes of central vestibular disease in dogs include: 

  • Infarct 
  • Inflammation 
  • Infection 
  • Trauma 
  • Brain tumor 
  • Certain medications 

Causes for peripheral vestibular disease include: 

Many times, vestibular disease appears suddenly without any obvious cause. When that happens, it is called idiopathic vestibular disease.

How is Vestibular Disease in Dogs Diagnosed?

Sometimes, the presenting systems can be relatively classic for old dog or idiopathic vestibular disease. In these cases, the vet may try supportive treatments first before offering further diagnostics or referral. Tests that might be recommended include blood tests, urinalysis, or advanced imaging, such as CT and MRI scans. If the vet is trying to rule out certain other underlying causes, they may also suggest X-rays.

What is the Treatment for Vestibular Disease in Dogs?

This depends on whether an underlying cause has been identified and the severity of the symptoms. The vet will often give your dog antiemetic medication, as symptoms of eye-flickering (nystagmus) and lack of balance can make them feel very nauseous. If your dog is refusing food and drink, or vomiting regularly, they may also need to be admitted for IV fluids to avoid dehydration.  

Treatment for a Specific Cause of Vestibular Disease in Dogs

If your dog has been diagnosed with a tumor that is causing them to lose balance and coordination, treatment options may include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or surgery to remove the tumor. This will depend on the type of brain tumor and overall prognosis.

Antibiotics or antifungals may be prescribed if your dog has been diagnosed with an ear infection.

Treatment for Reducing the Symptoms of Vestibular Syndrome in Dogs

Whether a cause has been identified or not, if your dog is struggling with severe dizziness or vomiting, the vet may also prescribe treatment to help alleviate some of the symptoms. This can include sedatives, antiemetic medication and IV fluids to help your pet get through some of the more severe manifestations of vestibular syndrome.

What Happens When No Cause Can Be Found for Your Dog’s Vestibular Disease?

If the blood tests, X-rays, and CT or MRI scans don’t point to any specific reason for your dog’s symptoms, the vet will likely recommend waiting, as most pets recover without any specific treatment and only supportive care. The symptoms can start to improve within a couple of days but will often take at least a few weeks to resolve fully. 

In some cases, a slight head tilt or wobble when walking can stay with your dog for life. It is important to keep an eye on how your dog’s condition is evolving, even when no cause has been found. If the symptoms worsen, make sure you contact your vet for advice. 

Are you afraid that your dog’s dizziness and lack of coordination may have been triggered by a stroke? Find out more about stroke in dogs, including the most common symptoms and what treatments are available. 

If you notice any other signs of illness in your dog or have any concerns about their health, contact your vet for further advice. 

For more expert tips on your dog’s health, explore our other dog health symptoms and issues articles

Related articles

A Basset Hound with droopy, red eyes
Is it an allergy, an injury or a disease? What is causing your dog’s eyes to become bloodshot? Here are some of the possible answers.
A woman holds her small dog with wet eyes close
A young boy pets his dog's face
MyPurina App - woman with dog

Reward Yourself with myPurina

Earn and redeem rewards for Purina products with the myPurina app.