The vestibular system controls the sense of balance and spatial coordination in dogs. It consists of several anatomic structures like semicircular canals, the VIII. cranial nerve, and several nuclei in the cerebellum and the brain stem. Lesions that can cause a vestibular disease can be located centrally (inside the brain) or peripherally (outside the brain). Peripheral vestibular syndrome is more common in dogs than central vestibular syndrome.
Lesions of the vestibular system can lead to head tilting and several disorders of the dog’s movement, coordination and balance. Particularly common among these is the disorder of the dog walking in circles. Also often seen is the rolling of the eyes and involuntary, rhythmic eye movements.
Older animals can develop temporary vestibular syndrome (geriatric vestibular syndrome) whose causes are yet unknown. It is characterized by a sudden, one-sided occurrence of the symptoms previously described. The causes for the more common peripheral form are usually the following: an inflammation of the inner or middle ear, tumors, or injuries of the middle ear. The central form can be caused by injuries, bleedings, tumors, infections of the brain, meningitis, or infarcts. Purebred dogs that are younger than three months old who have symptoms of the vestibular syndrome most likely suffer from the congenital form of the disease. The congenital form is one-sided, and is often seen in German Shepards, Doberman Pinschers, Akita Inus, English Cocker Spaniels, Smooth Fox Terriers and Tibetan Terriers. In Doberman Pinschers and Akita Inus the symptoms are often accompanied with deafness. Many animals can adjust well to the disturbances of equilibrium and can have a good quality of life.
Therapy for geriatric vestibular syndrome depends on the severity of the symptoms and their causes, if they can be identified. Usually infusions and medication for nausea are often sufficient. Generally, a fast recovery within a few days can be seen, but in rare cases the head tilting is permanent. The prognosis for recovery is very good.
Vestibular syndrome is generally not fatal. However, disturbances to your dog’s equilibrium can cause nausea and vomiting that has to be treated, as well as other unpleasant symptoms such as walking in circles. To eliminate other possible diseases you should consult a veterinarian as soon as possible.