Often we see dogs that are unable to walk, with owners thinking their pet has had a stroke. These dogs could be rolling around on the ground and appear disoriented. If they can walk, the dog will seem to stagger or stumble around.

In many of these cases, what people think is a stroke is actually a problem with the dog’s sense of balance – in particular, the vestibular apparatus. Vestibular signs are commonly (and usually incorrectly) referred to as a stroke. While a vascular accident (stroke) is a possible cause of vestibular signs, it is a rare cause and vascular disease, while common in people, is unusual in pets.

It’s important to educate pet owners about vestibular apparatus problems in dogs, so they know how to react if it happens and how their vet will be able to help.

What is the Vestibular Apparatus?

The vestibular apparatus is the neurological equipment responsible for our sense of balance, with the receptors located in your dog’s middle ear.

These receptors connect to nerve centres in the brain and from these centres instructions are carried by nerves to the legs, neck, and eye muscles, allowing us to orient and balance ourselves.

Signs of Vestibular Disease in Dogs

If there is trouble in the vestibular apparatus, your pet may feel dizzy and unsteady when walking. Signs of vestibular disease include:

  • Ataxia – lack of co-ordination, stumbling and staggering around
  • Motion sickness
  • Nystagmus – back and forth or rotational eye movements
  • Circling, usually toward the side of the brain lesion
  • Head tilt, usually toward the side of the lesion
  • Falling to one side, usually toward the side of the lesion
  • Trouble with other nerves controlling the head and face

Causes of Vestibular Disease in Dogs

The most common causes of vestibular disease in dogs are middle ear infection, brain lesions or idiopathic (meaning unknown).

Middle Ear Infection

Middle ear infection is a possibility for vestibular disease, especially if your dog has a history of ear infections.

Imaging of the middle ear bones by your vet may be required to diagnose this disease.

Brain Lesions

If the vestibular signs have a central origin, there could be a cancer, vascular accident, infection or other lesion in the brain. Imaging of the brain (through a CT scan or MRI) will be important in determining the nature of the lesion and what treatment makes the most sense.

Idiopathic Disease

Idiopathic vestibular disease is the most common form of vestibular disease in pets. Some dogs develop vestibular disease and we do not know why they occur. We do know they represent problems in the periphery, the nerves of the middle ear rather than in the brain.

Vestibular disease in older dogs begins and resolves acutely, generally with improvement evident in 72 hours with the animal returning to normal in 7 to 14 days. Occasionally a head tilt may persist. When a case of vestibular disease begins, sometimes your vet will wait a few days to see if improvement occurs, before doing diagnostics beyond a routine blood/urine database.

Dogs often show substantial improvement in 2-3 days. If they are not showing improvement or have other signs indicating another problem, these dogs need further investigations such as MRIs to investigate the cause of their “stroke”.

What to Do if You Think Your Dog Has Had a Stroke

At Sydney Veterinary Emergency & Specialists, our team of highly dedicated veterinary doctors treat a range of canine health problems, including vestibular disease.

If you think your dog may have had a stroke, or you’re worried about their balance or orientation, seek assistance from our 24-hour emergency hospital. With a fully equipped laboratory on-site, we can provide equipment and technology that few other vet clinics have.

Call the Sydney veterinary team on (02) 9197 5800 or visit us online to learn more about our services. You can book a specialist vet appointment for your dog from Monday to Friday, 8:30am-6pm or contact us at any time for emergency and after hours care.