By Helen Anne Travis
Like humans, pets can experience vertigo. The sensation of dizziness and imbalance is often caused by vestibular disease. The vestibular system governs an animal’s sense of balance and includes components in the inner ear and brain.
There are two types of vestibular disease, says Los Angeles veterinarian Dr. Patrick Mahaney. Central vestibular disease refers to a problem occurring inside the skull, like a tumor or stroke, while peripheral vestibular disease is caused by something happening elsewhere in the body, like inflammation in the inner ear. Peripheral vestibular disease is more common and usually has a better outcome for the dog.
Vestibular disease most often affects older dogs—in fact, you may hear it referred to as “old dog vestibular disease.” Scientists have not yet been able to identify an underlying cause for the condition. Anecdotally, Mahaney says it seems to affect larger dogs, but any breed or mixed breed is susceptible.
Cats can also experience vertigo, but it’s very rare, says Dr. Cathy Meeks, a board-certified internal medicine specialist and a group medical director at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Tampa, Florida. In cats, the condition is usually caused by an inner ear infection or cancer. Cats can also develop polyps and benign tumors in their ears, which lead to a sensation of vertigo.
Symptoms of Vertigo in Dogs and Cats
Animals experiencing vertigo might suddenly appear off balance. They may be unable to walk straight or hold their head at a correct angle. The discomfort and nausea that results from vestibular disease might also make them more vocal.
Other symptoms include falling down, being unable to stand up, and unusual eye movements. The eyes may rotate in their sockets or shift back and forth “like those old clocks your grandma had on the wall,” Mahaney says.
The symptoms can be so extreme and come on so suddenly that pet owners fear their dog needs to be euthanized because something is terribly wrong, Meeks says. “That’s not always the case,” she assures. “In a lot of instances, it can be curable. Even though it looks really scary, it’s not [an immediate] reason to put your pet down.”
How to Diagnose and Treat Your Pet's Vertigo
Your veterinarian may need to run a series of bloodwork, X-rays, urine testing, and additional diagnostic tests to rule out other medical issues. They will also try to pinpoint what, if anything, is causing your pet’s vertigo.
But in most cases of old dog vestibular disease, test results will come back normal and the problem will go away on its own in a matter of days or weeks, Meeks says. Anti-nausea medications, excellent care at home, and maybe even a pet-sized dose of Dramamine, can help the animal cope with the symptoms in the meantime.
In extreme cases, the dog might need to be hospitalized and put on fluids until the condition improves. They can also be mildly sedated at home under a vet’s guidance.
But once the condition is resolved, the dog is usually back to his or her old self, although some dogs are left with mild but permanent neurologic impairment (e.g. a slight head tilt or becoming unsteady when they shake their heads).
“Even if owners can’t afford a diagnostic workup, it’s worth treating the symptoms for a few days to see if they improve,” Meeks recommends. “The dog could live the rest of its life and never have an issue again.”
On the other hand, if your dog’s condition worsens or fails to improve over several weeks and quality of life is poor, euthanasia may then be a reasonable option.