Geriatric vestibular syndrome in dogs can be a scary thing for a loving pet owner to witness, especially if he or she knows nothing about the disorder. This condition comes upon your precious pooch quite suddenly and the symptoms can be very disturbing.
The term ‘vestibular’ refers to the sensory system in most mammals responsible for maintaining equilibrium or normal balance. Your dog’s vestibular system (much like your vestibular system) allows her to coordinate all her movements with balance and orients her to where her body is in space at any given time.
As you can imagine, when the normal functioning of this system is disrupted, your dog becomes unbalanced and disoriented. Vestibular syndrome is much more common in older dogs and that’s why most veterinarians call it ‘geriatric’ or ‘old’ dog vestibular syndrome.
What are the symptoms of geriatric vestibular syndrome in dogs?
This condition hit my dog Toni, when she was 15 years old. Luckily, I had been working in a veterinary clinic for several years and was able to recognize it for what is was, so it wasn’t so frightening to watch. I knew basically what was happening to her and what to do.
But for a loving pet parent who is not aware of the signs of geriatric vestibular syndrome in dogs, the sudden onset and the nature of the symptoms can be quite alarming. It’s also important to realize that your precious pet is just as frightened, if not more so, than you are.
Clinical signs include:
- Loss of coordination ~ Your dog is unable to walk straight and stumbling, which may remind you of how someone drunk would act.
- Head tilt ~ Her head is tilted to one side. This could range from a slight tilt to an extreme one, depending on the severity of the underlying cause. Often the dog will walk in circles in the direction of the head tilt.
- Eyes darting back and forth ~ She looks as though she’s watching a ball roll round and round in a circle. This uncontrollable jerking eye movement is called nystagmus.
- Nausea ~ She’s dizzy. This often causes drooling and vomiting.
- Inability to function normally ~ The vertigo caused by this condition in geriatric dogs can be so intense as to make even normal activities like eating and drinking or going outside to the ‘bathroom’, very difficult or even impossible.
What should I do if I see these symptoms in my Old Girl?
You should get her to a veterinarian as soon as you can. These signs of geriatric vestibular syndrome in dogs are very similar to symptoms that can indicate a much more serious canine condition.
Stroke, inner ear infection, encephalitis, or a brain tumor would have very much the same symptoms, so your vet should rule out these more critical diseases as soon as possible.
What if I can’t get her to the vet right away?
If you can’t get your dog to the vet right away, first and foremost, don’t panic. Remember, your beloved baby is frightened too and you don’t want to make the situation worse for her (or for you). This is where you get to know the good news about geriatric vestibular syndrome in dogs!
Most senior dogs that are affected by this condition recover, often without any treatment. This old dog disease is not uncommon and most veterinarians end up diagnosing it as “idiopathic.” This means that it occurs unexpectedly and the cause is unknown. But an unknown cause is much better than one of those scary causes, right?
So now that you know your Old Girl is eventually going to be fine, if you can’t get her to the vet right now, there are things you can do to make you both more comfortable:
- Keep her as calm as you can. She’s frightened, confused, dizzy and disoriented. You are her rock. The calmer you are, the safer she’ll feel. Speak to her gently and in a tone that implies normality.
- She probably will not want to eat or drink in the beginning stages of this syndrome. Don’t force her to try. She’ll be fine without food until you can get her help but do offer her fresh water at all times and if she seems thirsty, help her drink.
- Keep her in a confined, safe, familiar area. If she tries to navigate stairs or jump on furniture, she’d most likely fall and she could injure herself.
Take her to the vet as soon as possible!
What will the veterinarian do?
Hopefully, the vet is somewhat familiar with your dog’s recorded history and can make a diagnosis fairly easily. If not, he or she will be able diagnose your dog’s condition after a complete physical examination and some simple tests.
If your beautiful baby is dehydrated, the vet may recommend keeping her in hospital for a day or two for intravenous fluid therapy and injections to help with nausea. If she’s not dehydrated, she’ll be sent home in your care. Don’t worry. The vet (or the vet tech) will tell you what to expect, give you instructions, and perhaps sedatives or medication for you to give her for dizziness.
That’s the great thing about geriatric vestibular syndrome in dogs. Not that any disease is great, but as suddenly and mysteriously as this syndrome affects your dog, so does your dog eventually (and seemingly miraculously) recover.
How long does recovery take?
The most dramatic symptoms occur within the first 48 hours of this disorder and some dogs are well on their way to recovery within 72 hours. More typically though, symptoms improve gradually over a period of 2 to 3 weeks. Some unusual cases have stretched as long as 6 weeks. It’s also important to note that most but not all recovery is complete; Sometimes a slight head tilt will remain.
In the time period that it takes your gorgeous girl to recuperate, you may have to help her with certain everyday things such as a trip outside to potty. If she’s a small breed dog of course you can carry her out and make sure she stays upright while she conducts her business. For a larger breed though, if you don’t have a geriatric dog harness, you can use a towel sling just under her abdomen to help her out and help her go.
If she’s always been an outside pet, chances are her convalescence will be most comfortable in her own backyard. Just make sure you visit her often, that there are no holes she can fall into or sharp objects to run into, and she has access to fresh water at all times.
Geriatric Vestibular Syndrome in Dogs. Sounds Scary, Looks Scary….. Not so Scary.
This is one of those times when the prognosis for an elderly dog is good. As a vet tech, it gave me great pleasure to be able to tell the anxious pet owners that their beloved dog would recover and what exactly to expect. Having been through it myself with Toni and knowing all about the research behind it, I was able to reassure them.
I hope that you have enjoyed and learned something from this article.
If you have any questions or comments or would like to relate your own experience, please do so below!!