Vestibular Disease

I knew we had a problem when she asked if perhaps I had a different birth date? I frowned, considering my options. No, I confessed, I had only the one birthdate. Apparently the pharmacy who has been filling my families’ prescriptions for well over 15 years was thrown for a loop when my new insurance company recorded an incorrect DOB (date of birth). Never mind that my name, address and most of my face (I am ageing, it’s true) still look pretty much the same as they did last month and last year. Sigh. Heaven forbid the person doing data entry into the computer over in the Philippines might have made an error. I’m still not sure what documents I’ll need to dredge up to prove that I am, in fact, still me.


It is helpful to know who you are. A few rock solid facts to stand upon boost your self-confidence. Seemingly small things like knowing your mother’s maiden name or where you attended grade school are comforting on days when the world seems topsy-turvy. I don’t know what animals rely upon when they sense their world swimming out of focus, but from observation I think they take comfort from the voices of the people they love. It always comes back to “home”.


“Pixie” is a chocolatey- colored mixed breed dog, about 35 pounds in weight. She has weathered a few health issues and requires regular medication but she is a cheerful dog and quite devoted to her owners. She helps in small tasks on the family farm. I suspect Pixie would love to be a part of the Merced Farmer’s Market on 16th and Canal Saturday mornings when local farmers showcase their fresh produce but she’s had to stay home. I suppose Pixie kisses might compete with the peaches or sweet potatoes for sale.


It was late in the day. Almost time to head for home when the receptionist paged back to ask if we could see a sick dog. I said yes, though not as enthusiastically as I might have a few hours earlier. But when I walked into the room and saw Pixie I was glad I had stayed. The little dog was crouched low on the ground, her head tilted to the right. For a brief moment she unfroze, and as she tried to move her legs scrambled wildly underneath her and she lurched crazily from side to side until, frightened, she froze again. Wow. As an assistant steadied her, talking in calming tones, I quickly reviewed her recent medical history. She had been treated for an ear infection several weeks earlier in the right ear.


Pixie tried not to move during the exam. It was clear that she couldn’t make sense of her world and felt completely unbalanced. She was ataxic, wobbling like a drunk person whenever she tried to move. Her loss of balance created a side effect like motion sickness. Pixie vomited all over. We examined deep into her eyes and down each ear. A small amount of brown fluid sat on top of her right ear drum. Her heart sounded normal and she did not have a fever. We checked her electrolytes and ran some other blood tests, which were normal. Pixie’s tentative diagnosis was Vestibular Disease, secondary to an inner ear infection of the right ear. The vestibular system, part of the inner ear, monitors movement and helps to control balance.


Vestibular Disease is seen in older dogs and cats. Most of the time there is no known underlying cause and no advance warning before onset of symptoms. Overnight a pet will suddenly become unbalanced (ataxia), often with a head tilted oddly to one side, which in turn may make the pet circle in that direction. Many feel nauseated. Some will have an odd jerking motion to their eyes, called nystagmus. The condition mimics a stroke or a seizure disorder and is quite terrifying to observe. Once other conditions have been ruled out the prognosis for Old Dog Vestibular Disease is quite good, with most dogs recovering within a few days. The head tilt may be permanent but your pet will adjust and navigate just fine.


Pixie was certainly frightened and miserable the night she came in. She required IV fluids and medication to stop her vomiting. We also started treatment for the suspected inner ear infection. Overnight Pixie improved dramatically. She walked cheerfully out of her cage the next morning and demanded breakfast! Pixie went home that same day and with any luck (and all this rain) will grow some fine peaches this spring.



Christine B. McFadden, DVM

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