If you know what to look for, you can identify the signs of canine vestibular disease early and ensure your dog's comfort and recovery.
young woman holding her yorkie with vestibular disease outdoors
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If your usually playful and coordinated pup suddenly becomes clumsy, falls over randomly, and walks in circles with their head tilted, they might be experiencing vertigo—specifically, a condition known as canine vestibular disease.

Because the symptoms come on suddenly, vertigo in dogs can be scary to witness. However, the good news is that if you know what to look for, you can identify the signs of canine vestibular disease early and your dog will likely recover just fine.

What Causes Canine Vestibular Disease?

Canine vestibular disease is characterized by a disruption in the vestibular part of the brain, which is responsible for balance and orientation, just like in humans.

Nikki Graham, DVM from Nottingham Animal Hospital in Hamilton, N.J., says that in most dogs, canine vestibular disease is idiopathic, meaning we don't actually know what is causing the disease. However, vertigo can sometimes be caused by ear infections, and in some cases, brain tumors, stroke, or trauma.

Symptoms of Vestibular Disease in Dogs

The term vertigo is often used to describe the symptoms of vestibular disease in dogs. You may recall having experienced mild sensations of vertigo after spinning around too fast. The most common signs of vertigo in dogs include:

  • The characteristic head tilt
  • Appearance of drunkenness
  • Eyes moving back and forth (nystagmus)
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Walking in circles
  • Falling to one side
  • Inability to stand and/or walk without support

Graham says that she will often get calls from owners saying their dog 'had a stroke' because dogs with vestibular disease tend to present with these stroke-like symptoms.

Vestibular disease symptoms usually come on suddenly, making it a potentially scary and distressing experience for dogs and owners alike. Typically, signs of vertigo are most severe within the first 24–48 hours before they begin to improve. Most dogs without any underlying conditions or known causes will recover fully within a few weeks to a few months.

Occasionally, some recovered dogs will have a slight head tilt for the rest of their lives. However, despite the fact that vestibular disease can get better on its own, it is still important to take your dog to the veterinarian if you notice them exhibiting symptoms of vertigo because there are other diseases that can cause similar symptoms. Your veterinarian can offer a diagnosis, identify the cause, and provide medication and advice on the next steps to ensure your dog gets better.

Types of Dogs Most Susceptible to Developing Vestibular Disease

Vestibular disease can occur in any breed, sex, or age of dog. However, according to Graham, there are a few breeds that have an increased overall incidence of canine vestibular disease, including:

Additionally, older dogs tend to be more susceptible to developing vestibular disease than younger dogs. Idiopathic vertigo in senior dogs is sometimes referred to as "old dog vestibular syndrome."

Treatment for Vestibular Disease in Dogs

The treatment for vestibular disease in dogs will depend on the specific case. If there is a known cause, then treating the underlying problem should resolve the vestibular issues. For example, an ear infection can be treated with medication or surgery, and a brain tumor can be treated surgically, with radiation therapy, or with chemotherapy.

The best way to diagnose canine vestibular disease, says Graham, is with a CT or MRI, as these scans can give your veterinarian clues as to what the cause may be. If there are no obvious causes, then the best thing you can do is provide supportive care for your dog, which includes administering anti-nausea medication provided by your veterinarian and ensuring a safe, comfortable home environment for your dog to rest.