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What Does Disorientation Look Like In Dogs?

Written by: Adri Sandoval
Adri Sandoval is the Special Projects Manager for iHeartDogs and iHeartCats. Her work has deepened her love for animals, fostering a strong passion for rescue and animal advocacy.Read more
| Published on October 11, 2017

Your dog’s vestibular system is what’s responsible for maintaining and stabilizing the position of his head, and stabilizing his body and eyes during head movements. Vestibular Disease will interfere with this system, causing disorientation, head tilt, and loss of balance. It’s important to take your dog to the vet to correctly diagnose, since other conditions like a stroke or hyperthyroidism can look similar.

Depending on the cause, your dog may experience disorientation only once or twice, or it may develop and worsen over time. Your dog may seem to struggle to maintain balance, or you may notice his eyes seem unfocused, and they will dart back and forth.

Symptoms of Disorientation in Dogs

If your dog is showing any of the following symptoms, you’ll want to take him to the vet right away. The sooner your veterinarian can see your dog, the sooner they can pinpoint the cause of your dog’s disorientation.

– Head tilt (this can range from mild to severe)
– Darting eyes (nystagmus)
– Eyes which are abnormally aligned and may be accompanied by a squint (strabismus)
– Drooping eyelid or presence of third eyelid (Horner’s syndrome)
– Facial paralysis
– Head tremor
– Circling
– Falling or rolling to one side
– Unsteady gait (ataxia) or inability to walk
– Unable to stand, or uses a wide stance
– Vomiting
– Development of motion sickness when in a vehicle

Types of Vestibular Disorders in Dogs

Vestibular disorders are common in dogs, with no predisposition to breed or gender. They can fall into one of two categories – peripheral or central disease. The vestibular system is an important part of your dog’s central nervous system, and your dog depends on it’s function to properly experience things as vital as gravity and vision.

Idiopathic vestibular disease (peripheral)– You’ll notice your dog’s eyes rapidly darting back and forth, which will cause extreme vertigo because he can’t focus on the horizon. Some owners confuse it with a seizure. It may disappear over time without treatment.

Inner ear disease (peripheral)– Inner ear disease may not be apparent at once, and might be accompanied by facial paralysis and drooping eyelid. This is most commonly caused by an inflammation of inner ear, with bacteria moving into the tube of the ear. Antibiotics work well as a cure.

Central vestibular disease – Central vestibular disease can cause severe damage to your dog’s brain stem, and may be responsible for cranial, motor, position and movement difficulties. Illnesses like Lyme disease or liver dysfunction can cause this sort of disease.

Vestibular syndrome (peripheral)– Originally called geriatric vestibular syndrome, it was often documented in older dogs, but recent studies show that middle-aged dogs can also be affected. An episode lasts between a few days to a few weeks, and your dog can usually be nursed through it with favorable recovery. The occasional dog will end up with a permanent, mild head tilt.

Causes of Disorientation in Dogs

While the causes of disorientation in dogs have not been completely revealed, researchers continue to work to uncover the reasons.

Causes of Idiopathic vestibular disease

– Some suspect that one cause may be a lesion in the auditory vestibular nerve, which brings instructions and sound relating to spatial position and movement into the brain
– Fungal infection
– Growth of abnormal tissues
– Conditions like hypothyroidism, that cause a defect in chemical reactions in the body
– Toxicity of antibiotics
– Bacteria from an ear infection

Causes of Central vestibular disease

– Head trauma
– Stroke
– Antibiotic toxicity
– Growth of abnormal tissues
– Thiamine deficiency
– Granulomatous meningoencephalitis
– Liver disease with metabolic brain stem degeneration
– Lyme disease
– Canine distemper
– Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
– Ehrlichiosis, a tick-borne bacterial infection

Causes of Vestibular syndrome

Once thought to be a complication of old age, but has been seen in middle-aged dogs. Studies show it may be related to inflammation of nerves connecting the inner ear to the cerebellum, which controls equilibrium, spatial orientation and body balance.

Diagnosis of Disorientation in Dogs

Having little to no balance, being unable to focus or walk will not be fun for your dog to live with. It’s best to get your dog to the vet for diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible.

Your vet’s top priority will be making your dog comfortable. If your dog is experiencing severe nausea and spatial disorientation, your vet may administer medication to ease those symptoms. If your dog is too upset or imbalanced to drink, he may be given intravenous fluids to hydrate him and regain a bit of balance.

The veterinarian will want to know what your pet’s behavior has been like over the past weeks, and may ask when you noticed the onset of symptoms. Your vet may be able to diagnose your dog’s illness by assessment of his eye movement, but because your dog may learn to adapt to his imbalance, it may not be conclusive. They may also take into account any facial paralysis, a change in mental activity or a weakness on one side of your dog’s body.

Your dog’s unsteady gait may be affected by stress he’s going through due to his imbalance and focus issues. A non-slip or even surface may be recommended since your dog may find other surfaces hard to navigate. If your vet is unable to give a diagnosis, they may need to use other tools.

A complete physical and neurological examination, checking blood pressure, complete blood count, urinalysis, thyroid level and a serum biochemical profile may be done. Examination of the ear canal or analysis of the substances of the ear canal might also be necessary.

If symptoms continue for days or weeks, or if your vet suspects a central lesion may be the cause of your dog’s disorientation, an MRI may be ordered. A spinal tap will rule out meningitis or encephalitis.

Treatment of Disorientation in Dogs

Some types of disorientation can be expected to clear up on it’s own, but others may mean a serious condition that needs attention. Be wary of central vestibular disorder – the brain stem area doesn’t respond well to neurosurgery, and offers little hope for successful treatment. However, there are drugs currently being studied that may offer a solution to the disease. Peripheral disorders are more likely to be treated easily.

Treatment will be based on the underlying cause, and may include:

– Medication for nausea, vertigo and dizziness
– Intravenous therapy if your dog hasn’t been eating or drinking enough water
– Sedatives might be used to calm your dog if he’s distressed
– Idiopathic vestibular disease may only need time and some attention from you
– If the underlying cause is an inner ear infection, antibiotics have been known to be effective
– Surgery and radiation in the case of abnormal tissue growth (tumors)
– Vestibular syndrome will most often go away on it’s own
– If an antibiotic has caused toxicity in your dog, the antibiotic must be stopped.

Recovery of Disorientation in Dogs

Your vet will likely require a follow up after treatment. With support and love, your dog should be back to normal with time, and you should expect to offer your dog some patience. Dietary changes may be suggested, and comfort and attention will be important to your dog’s recovery.

Some head tilt may remain, but relapse of vestibular disease is not common.


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