A couple of months ago, I let my dog out in the morning as usual. It was a beautiful day outside — the kind of mild weather we seldom have in Texas — so I let him stay out as long as he wanted. About an hour later, I let him in after hearing him bark — and was met with the most terrifying sight.
Mosby's a Jack Russell-Chihuahua mix and almost 15 years old, but he's always been extremely agile. But he could barely get up the 6-inch step up to the porch (one he usually blows past like it doesn't exist). When he did make it up, he was stumbling, his eyes were twitching in the sockets and his head was cocked so far to one side, it looked like something out of a horror movie.
I picked him up and held him in my arms while fumbling to call the vet (to be honest, I damn near called 9-1-1 but caught myself in time). I explained the situation to the vet's assistant, and she asked me to bring him right in. I gently put him in his crate and took deep breaths all the way to the office to avoid speeding or blowing through a red.
I was expecting to hear the word "stroke." That's what took my childhood dog, and I'll never forget the symptoms. I was told Mosby's symptoms could be related to infections, tumors and other conditions, but they had settled on canine vestibular disease as the cause. How did they know without a CT scan or MRI? They looked in his ears.
I always thought it was bad to clean your dog's ears. In fact, I was once told (by his first vet) that the amount of water that got into his ears during a bath was plenty, and that he'd get out what he needed to himself, but under no circumstances should I put fluid in his ears. Turns out, that's wrong (and that it's not uncommon for even vets to have that misconception). The problem occurs when water stays in the ear (ever had swimmer's ear?).
The vet technician asked me to hold him down (not that it was necessary… he couldn't have fought back if he wanted to) while she cleaned his ears out with a saline solution. You would not believe the gunk that came out. I was horrified. How long had this been building up in my poor baby's ears?
Canine vestibular disease, often called idiopathic (arising from an unknown cause) vestibular disease, is really terrifying but generally very treatable. The vestibular system is comprised of portions of the brain and ear, and it is what helps your dog maintain its sense of balance. So if something goes wrong, the dog's entire world turns upside down (and back again, then upside down, then back again). I imagine it being much like extreme vertigo. Symptoms include:
The first thing you should know is that it's usually treatable, but it can be very dangerous, and these symptoms aren't unique to vestibular disease, so a "wait and see" approach is a mistake. It may or may not clear up if you do nothing. Make sure your vet takes a look and helps you decide whether the wait-and-see approach is an option for your dog.
There are also two types of vestibular disease, peripheral (when there's irritation to the nerves that connect the inner ear to the brain) and central (which is less common but much more serious and originates in the central nervous system).
The disease is very common in older dogs (in fact, some people call it "old dog" vestibular disease), but that doesn't mean it can't happen to younger dogs, too, especially if there's some sort of congenital defect.
Most dogs make a full recovery, though some may continue to have minor neurological issues, like a persistent head tilt or wobbling when they shake. Mosby still gets a bit dizzy sometimes, and while it's never been a good idea to leave him out in the Texas heat for too long, it's even more imperative than ever that we bring him in within a few minutes or he'll slip, slide and stumble his way to his water dish. But after a few minutes, he's mostly fine.
But unfortunately, it's not always so benign. If the disease is too far progressed or the dog can't get better, some dogs have to be euthanized. Also, because they're so dizzy, they need to be watched constantly or they could seriously injure themselves.
The exact treatment depends on the severity of the illness and what kind of vestibular disease it is. They may do blood tests, X-rays, an MRI or a CT scan to rule out other illnesses, though some vets may be confident enough that they treat the animal for vestibular disease before asking you to invest in pricey tests.
They may prescribe a variety of medications, again, depending on the specific case. They could prescribe antibiotics, steroids or medication for nausea, but there's no one-size-fits-all treatment.
If it was caused, as it so often is, by a lack of proper ear cleaning or ear infections, they'll probably tell you to clean the dog's ears frequently and may even give you a special solution to do it. Make sure you ask them to show you how to clean the ears as overzealous cleaning can cause the same types of issues.
The important thing is not to panic. Your dog will be distressed enough by the whole situation, so staying calm is key. Yes, it's scary, and yes, it could be more serious than just a little dizziness, but try to assume the best until the doctor tells you otherwise.
Oh, and learn to properly clean out your dog's ears, and do it on the schedule recommended by your doctor.
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