Geriatric Canine Vestibular Disease

I’ve been nursing Kiera through a mean case of Vestibular Disease for the past two weeks. Oddly enough, it came on at the Vet’s office while we were there for her annual exam. From the time she jumped out of the car and got into the exam room, from all appearances, it looked as though she’d had a stroke. Her head tilted, her gait was unsteady, her tongue hung out to one side. By the end of the visit, she could barely stand up without her legs splaying out from under her–she had no balance.

I was so very lucky, because instead of hitting the panic switch if this had happened at home, the vet was immediately able to allay my fears and explain what Vestibular Disease was.  But more importantly, she was able to tell me that this usually resolves on its own within 2-3 weeks. She was able to diagnose quickly because of one of the common signs of disorientation, head tilt, and jerking eye movements.

It’s been distressing to watch, to say the least. This video was taken at Day 7 of one very long week….

Holistic vet, Dr. Becker gives a good overview in this video of Vestibular Disease.

Some Factioids about Vestibular Disease (with additional information here):

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  • IVD is non-fatal, non-progressive and so common among older cats and dogs that it’s often referred to as Senile or Geriatric Vestibular Syndrome. This is somewhat erroneous since there are cases of younger canines getting the syndrome. It’s not genetic, it’s not gender related, nor is it limited to particular breeds of cat or dog or even pure bred animals. It occurs most frequently between the months of June and October, though there is no pattern and some veterinarians have noticed a association with outbreaks of respiratory infections.
  • It mimics a stroke but there are three symptoms that are classic markers for IVD: Disorientation called “ataxia”, jerking eye movement called “Nystagmus,” and the head tilt. For some animals, the head tilt can persist for months. For a rare few, it’s life long. A loss of appetite is also common.
  • There is a school of thought that IVD is a micro-sized clot which affects the portion of the brain dealing with balance. Recently, some specialists have begun using MRIs in their research. Other than protecting the pet from injuring themselves, there is no treatment and most symptoms disappear after 72 hours with full recovery within one to three weeks.
  • If you consider what an animal feels during the course of this illness, the behavior of a dog with IVD makes sense. If a person has had too much to drink and tries to lie down, the room spins, he feels nauseated and gets sick. He’ll even stick a foot on the floor to make the room stop spinning so he can feel oriented. But the brain of an afflicted animal seek balance by trying to visually “spot” an object in the room and that’s why they jerk their eyes back and forth.
  • It’s an alarming thing to witness, but given how common it is, every dog owner should be aware of it as their dogs age.


What you can do to help keep your dog safe during recovery:

  • Leave a light on 24/7. A dog with IVD can’t maintain much balance if she can’t see. (In Kiera’s case, given her cataracs, this was a huge help.)
  • Your dog’s balance will be seriously compromised until she recovers, so protect your dog from falls and bumping into sharp furniture corners.
  • It’s not likely that your dog will be able to negotiate stairs without the risk of falling. Make sure to help your dog up and down stairs, or better yet, try to avoid stairs all together if possible.
  • Don’t carry your dog unless she’s small and you can hold her snug against your body, as she may squirm at the uncomfortable feeling of not having her feet on the ground. Losing contact with the ground is frightening for a dog that has no other reliable way to tell which direction is up. If your dog is too big to be carried, use a padded harness instead to help her move around, allowing for her to keep her feet on the ground. This will be easier on her and much easier on your back.(I cut the sides out of a cloth grocery bag with handles and used it effectively and comfortably as a supporting sling.)
  • Because your dog may have an especially hard time keeping her footing on smooth flooring, consider picking up some cheap, non-slip floormats for more secure footing.
  • If you live in a multiple-dog home, you may need to hand-feed your IVD dog, or feed her in an enclosed room, as she will find it harder to find her bowl and will eat more slowly than normal. You’ll want to prevent your other dogs from pushing her away from her food.
  • I also found that Kiera, who is not usually a clingy dog, now needs to be near me at all times. If she’s able to have full body contact, that’s even better for her. So I’ve thrown a blowup mattress on the floor and we mostly camp out there, so she can sleep next to me without worry of her falling off the bed.

We’re not out of the woods yet at the end of week three, but there has been slow but definite improvement. I can tell you from experience that perhaps the most important thing you can do for yourself is to keep your spirits up. This is very upsetting and difficult to watch your dog go through. Just remember, this too shall pass–give or take a week or three or more.. And don’t worry if you don’t see any significant improvement for the first week. Some dogs will improve in a shorter amount of time, but many don’t. Remember–IVD often has an acute onset with an acute resolutions. So remember to breathe!


12 thoughts on “Geriatric Canine Vestibular Disease”

  1. You said in your Australian shepherd post that your dog would have lived longer if she hadn’t had vestibular disease. But here it says that it is not life threatening. So I’m wondering what it is about vestibular disease that shortened her life?

    My papillon had it for about a year before he died, and I’ve been wondering about the actual cause of his death ever since. He seemed to start having seizures after awhile. It’s still agony for me that I felt I had to put him down. Dogs don’t go easy into that night. ?

    1. Hi Kelly
      My Aussie had a really bad case and never recovered from the dizziness and disorientation. I’m sure she was also constantly nauseous from it too. I think these constant difficulties just wore her down. So I wouldn’t say it was the direct cause of her death, but it was a huge contributor.

      I feel your pain. No, it is never easy for us to have to make these heart-rending decisions for our beloved dogs.

  2. I empathize with Kiera and you. My 17 year old JRT, Hobbes, was diagnosed with vestibular disease last April. At 11 p.m. we were on the phone with our vet making an emergency appt. since Hobbes eyes were going back & forth so rapidly all he could do was flop around. He continues to have bouts every several months, and our vet gives him a steroid injection that so far markedly improves his stumbling before we leave the office. It usually takes 20 – 30 minutes, but he is so much better before we leave. Now the CCD only makes things worse for him, but he is hanging in there eating like a horse and following us around the house just to be close if we are not sitting. We give him Alprazolam to relax him at night so we all can get some sleep since his day/night sleep pattern is messed up. Good luck, and hang in there.

    1. Deb, my sympathies to you and Hobbes as well. It’s quite a distressing condition. Our vet also warned us that we may run into some relapses. So far so good… I’m going to speak with her about the Alprazolam. Kiera also gets very restless at night now. Thanks for sharing what helps to make Hobbes’ life better. I’m learning as I go and this information is very helpful!

  3. Hi Karen,
    Glad to hear Kiera’s improving. The “Lassie, Get Help” blog had a post on vestibular about 4 years ago that still gets comments. She had to add a 2nd post to get the comments to work properly. Lots of people sharing their stories and what did or did not work for them and their dogs. First post was and the 2nd is referenced at the top of it.

    When my Aussie had a stroke (probably not vestibular, but no MRI to check since it wasn’t going to change the treatment), I found a step-in harness with leash attached on top by her shoulders combined with a table runner as a sling under her belly helped me stabilize her walking. I also did a lot of TTouch work with her to encourage reconnection between brain and body, especially connected touches parallel to the spine and earwork to help with some of the nausea. A body wrap or thundershirt will comfort some dogs.

    Good luck! Kyah had her stroke at age 14, and I had her for nearly 2 more years. Hope you and Kiera are together for a long time to come!

    1. Judi, thanks for all the helpful suggestions. The Lassie blog post and comments are full of great information. I have been using TTouch and definitely think it helps. And thanks for letting me know your Kyah made it 2 more years after her stroke. That’s really encouraging to know!

      Dawn, thanks for the hugs. Always appreciated. : )

  4. Karen, I have never heard of this. I sent this link to my daughter and asked her if she has ever had any cases. Wishing Kiera a complete recovery and you a nice rest when it is over.

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