Other health problems

Vestibular Disorder in Dogs

Irene Juste
By Irene Juste, Assistant Veterinary Technician. October 10, 2022
Vestibular Disorder in Dogs

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Not all dogs have the same level of balance, but they all maintain their equilibrium using the same anatomical structures. When we see a dog has strong limbs and a muscular body, we often assume certain levels of balance and agility. But much of what makes a dog able to maintain and control movement is thanks to the vestibular system. This system has as much to do with the ear as it does with the dog's limbs. When something affects the vestibular system in dogs, it doesn't just affect their balance and orientation. It can seriously affect many of their body's systems.

At AnimalWised, we look at vestibular disorder in dogs. We understand the causes, symptoms and treatment of various vestibular syndrome related issues so we can best safeguard our dog's health and wellbeing.


  1. What is vestibular disorder in dogs?
  2. Dog breeds predisposed to vestibular disorder
  3. Causes of vestibular disorder in dogs
  4. Symptoms of vestibular disorder in dogs
  5. Diagnosis of vestibular disorder in dogs
  6. Treatment of vestibular disorder in dogs
  7. Caring for a dog with vestibular syndrome

What is vestibular disorder in dogs?

The vestibular system is what allows dogs to maintain balance and spatial orientation. Without it, the animal would be unable to maintain coordination and control their movement. It is closely related to the auditory system as it makes up part of the ear's inner structure. It is comprised of the following parts:

  • Vestibulo-cochlear nerve: serves as a connection between the inner ear and the central nervous system.

  • Vestibular nucleus: collection of neurons located in the vestibular nerve of the brainstem used to send signals.

  • Vertical semicircular canals: both anterior and posterior tubes which help provide a three dimensional sense.

  • Muscles of the eyeball: signals are sent to the eyeball to maintain balance.

All these parts of a dog's body are connected and involved in the task of facilitating the animal's movement and orientation. This system allows the animals to maintain spatial awareness, balance, orientation and posture. When this system does not work for any reason, we are referring to vestibular disorder, also known as vestibular syndrome in dogs.

Vestibular disorder is a sign that some part of the vestibular system is not working properly. This could be due to a pathological disease, trauma or other issues. It is sometimes referred to as a syndrome since it results in various symptoms which present in different combinations. The main types of vestibular disorder in dogs are the following:

  • Peripheral vestibular disease: arise from the peripheral nervous system and is sometimes known as the external central nervous system. This is caused by a disorder of the inner ear.

  • Central vestibular disease: a more serious form with its origins in the central nervous system. Fortunately, it is much less common.

  • Idiopathic vestibular disease: in these cases, there is no clear cause and the symptoms develop very suddenly. It can present for prolonged periods of time, but it is more common to have its onset and then disappear within a few weeks without ever establishing a cause.

In most cases, the peripheral form shows rapid improvement and recovery if the cause is treated promptly. Central vestibular disease is more difficult to treat and sometimes cannot be remedied. The idiopathic form cannot be resolved with any treatment. Treatment is based on symptom management and helping the dog to adapt to their new condition for as long as the vestibular syndrome lasts.

Dog breeds predisposed to vestibular disorder

Any dog ​​can develop vestibular disorder. Some dogs are more predisposed than others thanks to their genetics. Congenital vestibular disorder in dogs can present from birth, although it is also possible symptoms only develop as they mature. Usually symptoms present by three months of age.

Although hereditary vestibular disorder can occur in puppies, vestibular disorders in general are much more common in older dogs. In these cases, they may be referred to as geriatric vestibular disorder. Despite this, vestibular disorder can present in dogs of any age or breed. Some breeds are more likely to have genetic vestibular disorder. They include:

  • German Shepherd
  • Doberman
  • Akita Inu
  • American Akita
  • English Cocker Spaniel
  • Beagle
  • Smooth-Haired Fox Terrier

Find out more about the health of one of these breeds with our article on common diseases of the German Shepherd.

Vestibular Disorder in Dogs - Dog breeds predisposed to vestibular disorder

Causes of vestibular disorder in dogs

The causes of vestibular disorder are very diverse. Said causes tend to produce the different forms of vestibular disorder in dogs:

  • Peripheral vestibular disease: the most common causes include otitis in dogs, chronic ear infections (both middle and inner ear), excessive ear cleaning and trauma leading to ear perforation or other damage.

  • Central vestibular disease: tend to be more pathological in nature and can include serious medical conditions such as toxoplasmosis, canine distemper, hypothyroidism, internal bleeding, trauma from brain injury, stroke, polyps, meningoencephalitis or tumors. Certain medications can also affect the dog's vestibular system including aminoglycoside antibiotics, amikacin, gentamicin, neomycin and tobramycin.

  • Idiopathic vestibular disease: as the name asserts, no cause is known.

Various pathologies which affect the ear can lead to vestibular disorder in dogs. Learn more with our article on why my dog's ear is in pain.

Symptoms of vestibular disorder in dogs

The most common symptoms of vestibular disorder in dogs are the following:

  • Disorientation
  • Cocked or lopsided head
  • Loss of balance
  • Walking in circles
  • Difficulty eating and drinking
  • Difficulty urinating and defecating
  • Involuntary eye movements
  • Dizziness, vertigo and nausea
  • Excessive drooling and vomiting
  • Appetite loss
  • Irritation in the nerves of the inner ear

These symptoms may appear suddenly or gradually as the condition progresses. When any of these symptoms are observed, it is very important we act quickly and take the dog to our trusted veterinarian. They will be able to identify the type of vestibular syndrome and determine the best course of action. This is especially the case if they are predisposed due to age or breed.

Find out other reasons why your dog may be disorientated with our article on why dogs walk in circles.

Vestibular Disorder in Dogs - Symptoms of vestibular disorder in dogs

Diagnosis of vestibular disorder in dogs

As stated above, it is of vital importance we take a dog to the veterinarian if we observed the aforementioned symptoms. The specialist will perform a general physical exam before carrying out various diagnostic tests to determine if the symptoms are due to vestibular disorder. If the dog keeps tilting their head, vestibular disease may be suspected so they will observe the ears both externally and internally.

If a physical examination is inconclusive, the vet will carry out x-rays, blood tests, cytology, cultures or any other possibilities. When central vestibular disease is suspected, the veterinarian may request tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, biopsies, etc. When all other possibilities have been excluded, but the symptoms present as canine vestibular disorder, the condition will be considered idiopathic.

The lack of coordination and poor gait is also known as ataxia in dogs when it is a neurological problem. Since vestibular disorder often has overlapping symptoms, it is important for the vet to establish that these symptoms are not the result of a canine neurological disorder.

Treatment of vestibular disorder in dogs

The treatment for canine vestibular disorder will depend on its form and presentation of symptoms. If the cause is known, this will be treated directly. It is also vital that secondary symptoms are managed to help our dog go through the process as well as possible.

  • Peripheral vestibular disease: as we have already mentioned, it is most likely an otitis or a chronic ear infection. The most common treatment for the peripheral form is usually reducing the otitis inflammation and treating ear infections.

  • Central vestibular disease: the treatment will also depend on the specific underlying cause. For example, hypothyroidism in dogs requires the appropriate hypothyroid drugs. Tumors will require treatment which can include surgical removal or even chemotherapy for dogs.

  • Idiopathic vestibular disease: since the cause is unknown, neither the main problem nor the vestibular syndrome can be treated. Although it can last a long time, it will most likely end by itself after a few weeks. Even if we decide to continue carrying out more tests to try to find a cause, we must focus on making life easier for our canine companion.
Vestibular Disorder in Dogs - Treatment of vestibular disorder in dogs

Caring for a dog with vestibular syndrome

During treatment or if the cause is idiopathic, our dog will need to adapt to life with vestibular disorder. It will be our responsibility as caregivers to help him them as good as possible and make their lives easier.

If a dog ​​is disoriented and falls, we need to protect them from physical harm. Often the dog walks like they are drunk, so we should move objects out of their way and ensure they have a clear path through the home. We will also need to help them eat and drink. We can give them food by hand and even syringe feed them if the symptoms are acute. We can do the same with water as dehydration is very serious. We will need to help them lie down and get up in some cases. Also, they may have trouble even going outside to urinate and defecate.

We will also need to help them emotionally. The dog will be both physically and emotionally disorientated, so we must reassure them through a soft voice, plenty of petting and simply being by their side as much as we can. Without these interactions, the dog will likely become very stressed and can even become aggressive out of frustration. Hopefully this will be temporary until the problem is resolved.

By following these tips, we will be helping them to get used to their new condition. Incrementally, we will see that they begin to feel better and they are capable of leading a very normal life. If the vestibular disorder is congenital, puppies usually get used to their condition as it is all they know. Although they may have a different life to other dogs, it doesn't mean they can life a happy and fulfilling life of their own.

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to Vestibular Disorder in Dogs, we recommend you visit our Other health problems category.

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Vestibular Disorder in Dogs