one dog's dizzying experience with vestibular disease

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one dog's dizzying experience with vestibular disease
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Jan 27 2015

I know I talk about my new old dog, Lester, a lot. I hope you’re not getting tired of him, because I’m about to talk about him again. If you’re a new reader to the blog, I’ll fill you in on the basics. Lester is a Treeing Walker Coonhound that I adopted from a senior rescue organization in my state. He’s old. He’s half blind. And he’s missing more teeth than he has. He’s paid his dues in life, and we’ve been lucky to have him sleeping in our house for the past few months.

Well, this morning I came downstairs to witness quite a scene—piles of vomit everywhere! And a few urine spots, as well. Lester looked at me with a pathetic face and attempted to stand up to greet me. He immediately fell over and sighed in what I imagine was a gesture of both sorrow and hopelessness.

Now, this dog LIVES for meal time. If you try to let him out to do his business before he eats breakfast, he will stand at the door and bay until you let him back in to eat! I offered him breakfast and he slowly and very carefully walked over to his bowl, sniffed it, and refused. He drank a bit of water and headed for the door.

I leash walked him this morning because I didn’t feel comfortable with him navigating the back stairs. And I wanted to witness his “business” this morning to see if I could gather any clues as to his ailment. There are two stairs down the front porch, which he stumbled down, landing flat on his chest. Poor Lester.

He recovered and we walked across the street to the park, where he promptly tossed his cookies all over the grass. Poor Lester.

It was early, so it was still dark outside. We headed inside so that I could get a closer look at him in the light, because by now I had a pretty good idea of what I hoped was going on. Once all the lights were on, I sat my old guy down and had a good look at his eyes. As I suspected, they were dancing back and forth uncontrollably. And I could see that he had a slight head tilt and a lean to one side.

Poor Lester—he has vestibular disease. This is a pretty common ailment of old dogs, and the good news is that it generally resolves on its own over a few days, but those few days are hard to witness. That’s because the vestibular system is responsible for telling the brain about the body’s position in space. When the vestibular system is on the fritz, you might as well have just stepped off of a merry-go-round, because that’s what it feels like.

Dizziness, incoordination and nausea are the effects of vestibular disease, and if you’ve ever been seasick, you know why Lester refused breakfast. In Lester’s case, vestibular disease is what we call “idiopathic”, which means we don’t know why he has it. Like I said, it’s relatively common in older dogs. Vestibular disease can also be caused by inner ear infections, or in some sad cases, by a lesion in the brain.

Luckily, for cases of idiopathic vestibular disease, all we need is a little time. Dogs who are severely affected may need medical intervention if they become dehydrated or refuse food for a long period of time, but most dogs will just get better on their own in 24-48 hours. Anti-nausea or motion sickness medications can help with the queasiness dogs and cats with vestibular disease can feel, and I made sure to get a dose in Lester as soon as I could.

So far, he’s still refusing food, but he’s curled up sleeping on his comfy bed right now, and it’s been about eight hours since he vomited, so things are looking a bit brighter. Poor Lester.