Vestibular Disease – What to Know If It Happens to Your Pet

A fancy word for a complicated illness, vestibular disease is very likely to happen when you least expect it. Also known as “Old Dog Disease”, though it can affect both cats and dogs, it is more likely to happen when your pet approaches their grey muzzle years.  While vestibular disease often resolves itself, the symptoms can be unnerving for the unprepared.  Read up on the different types, causes and treatments for this illness that can occur at any time and without warning.

Types of Vestibular Disease:

Vestibular disease, or a disease affecting the inner ear where a pet’s sense of balance originates (known as the vestibule), can come in two different types depending on the area of the cause.

Peripheral Vestibular Disease: this is the type that stems from issues in the inner to middle ear canal, or at the nerves connecting the inner ear to the brain1.  While this is the most common type of vestibular disease, it is also the easiest to cure as it usually passes on its own.  Dogs with large, heavy ears are more likely to get peripheral vestibular disease as it is often associated with bacterial, fungal or viral infections of the ear.  While a blood test and neurological exam will be performed for diagnosis, this type is generally confirmed once symptoms start to disappear after a few days2.

Central Vestibular Disease: this type is rarer, as it is caused by issues in the central nervous system1.  It is more difficult to cure as it generally is caused by a more severe problem; the loss of balance is just a secondary symptom.  Cancer, autoimmune diseases, or trauma are a few of the causes of central vestibular disease.  This is diagnosed after peripheral vestibular disease is ruled out, when the symptoms do not resolve on their own.  Diagnostic x-rays, blood tests, and cytology tests may be necessary to determine the cause.

Symptoms of Vestibular Disease:

Part of why vestibular disease is so alarming is because the symptoms begin suddenly and with no warning.  Loss of balance, tilting of the head, nausea which leads to drooling and vomiting, dizziness, rolling on the floor or circling, and rapid eye movements are all signals that vestibular disease is the root of the problem.

As the symptoms for vestibular disease frequently mimic the more serious health problems of heart attack, stroke, seizures or brain injury, it is important for your pet to be examined by your vet as soon as possible.  Even after a close neurological exam and diagnosis of vestibular disease, be sure to visit your vet for a check-up once symptoms have resolved, or if symptoms have not gotten better after two days.

Vestibular Disease Causes:

The most common presentation of vestibular disease is idiopathic, which means there is no known cause for it.  This is especially likely in older animals who are at greater risk of vestibular disease than their younger relatives.  This is due to increased chance of inflammation to their ear canal tissue and greater exposure to certain antibiotics1.  Fortunately, vestibular disease, even in older pets, tends to resolve itself.

Still, there are several factors known to cause problems in the vestibule, such as chronic ear infections, perforated ear drums, overly aggressive ear cleaning, hypothyroidism, certain antibiotics, head trauma and brain tumors.  In central vestibular disease, particular risks factors include inflammatory disease, loss of blood flow to the ear canal, and cancer.  In both types of vestibular disease, a pet can be born with a condition that causes these symptoms.

While it is unlikely your pet will be tested for each of these causes unless symptoms do not fade after a few days, the chances of vestibular disease being a chronic issue are very slim.  More than likely, your pet will be back on their feet in a few days.

Treatment for Vestibular Disease:

As soon as you notice your pet showing any of these symptoms, it is important to get them to a vet right away.  This is to rule out any life-threatening illnesses which can mimic vestibular disease.  On its own, vestibular disease is not life threatening and can be managed at home.

Once a blood test and neurologic exam is performed to rule out other illnesses, your vet will most likely feel comfortable releasing your pet to go back home with a prescription for nausea and dizziness medication.  If released for home care, it is a good idea to confine your pet to a small area with access to food, water and soft bedding.  They will also need help to go to the bathroom and help reaching the food and water bowls.  Dehydration is the primary risk with vestibular disease, so if your dog is too big for you to help walk around, in-office vet care may be prescribed.

Older dogs are more likely to need support therapy as they may find the lack of balance harder to adapt to and will become dehydrated easily.  Your vet may keep them in-house for a few days, offering IV fluids, help in going to the bathroom, and to keep them calm while the symptoms subside.  If the symptoms persist for more than two days, another cause for the condition is likely and further testing may be necessary.  It is also possible for pets to have a lifelong head tilt even after recovering from other symptoms.  Full recovery can take as long as two weeks, but most pets can start getting around after a few days.

While vestibular disease sounds scary and is rarely talked about, it is likely to happen to your pet when you least expect it.  By knowing what symptoms to look out for and how to deal with them when they occur, you can care for your pet when the unexpected occurs.

Does anyone have any familiarity with vestibular disease?  Please let us know what your experience with it was and how you managed it in the comments below!


1 Vestibular Disease in Dogs: Symptoms and Proper Treatment. (n.d.). Retrieved March 29, 2018, from

2 Fivecoat-Campbell, K. (n.d.). Vestibular Disease in Dogs. Retrieved March 29, 2018, from


  1. It need proper treatment from the primary stage. Otherwise it can be severe. One of my friend’s dog had this disease. With proper medication she is well now.

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