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Vestibular Disease & Nystagmus in Dogs

Nystagmus - flickering or twitching of the eyes - can be caused by vestibular disease in dogs. Pets with this condition need urgent medical attention. Our South Florida vets explain potential causes and treatment options for vestibular disease in this post. 

What is Vestibular Disease?

Often referred to as old dog disease or old dog vestibular syndrome, canine idiopathic vestibular disease is a non-progressive balance disorder caused by issues that affect a dog's vestibular system in the brain, including the inner and middle ear. While this condition is often seen in older dogs, younger dogs can also suffer from it. 

Your dog's vestibular system is responsible for adapting the position of the eyes and the body with respect to the movement and position of the head. 

The vestibular system controls balance, which explains why dogs with vestibular disease often experience dizziness and have problems walking normally.

The disorder is caused by either peripheral vestibular dysfunction or central vestibular dysfunction, and the symptoms of these two types of dysfunction often overlap. Comprehensive general and neurological exams can often help differentiate between the two. 

  • Peripheral vestibular disease - Is caused by disorders of the inner ear (the body's balance center). 
  • Central vestibular disease - Originates from balance issues within the brain. 

What is nystagmus in dogs?

Nystagmus is a physiological response to the movement of the head, which permits sustained viewing of a scene (physiological nystagmus). 

A dog's eyeballs make involuntary, rhythmic movements, either up and down or side to side. The eyes may also flicker or twitch. 

Flickering eye movements are entirely normal in most cases. For example, when your dog is looking outside a moving car. However, these movements can become concerning if they occur while your dog's head is still, as this may indicate an underlying disease (pathological nystagmus).

Nystagmus can be observed while testing the oculocephalic reflex by moving the your dog's head slowly or from side to side. 

Vestibular disease is the primary cause of nystagmus. Veterinarians consider this condition a troubling symptom of dysfunction within a pet's nervous system. Pets with nystagmus require urgent medical attention. 

The two primary types of nystagmus are: 

  • Jerk nystagmus - The most common type of nystagmus causes the eyeballs to move slowly in one direction (opposite to the direction of the head), then jerk back rapidly in the opposite direction (the same direction as the head rotation). 
  • Pendular nystagmus - This refers to circular movements of the eyeballs due to a defect in the brain or ear. Small oscillations occur (picture a pendulum swinging back and forth), which can be relatively faster or slower than other types of nystagmus. 

Other common types of nystagmus include: 

  • Horizontal nystagmus - Causes the eyeballs to flicker side to side. 
  • Vertical nystagmus - Causes the eyeballs to flicker up and down. 

What are other symptoms of vestibular disease in dogs? 

Dogs with acute vestibular disease often exhibit symptoms such as loss of appetite, lack of coordination, head tilt, continuous circling in one direction, dizziness, excessive vomiting, and salivation due to imbalance.

Vestibular disease in dogs is often misdiagnosed as a seizure, poisoning, or stroke, as the symptoms of these illnesses can be very similar. 

Signs of vestibular disease can appear quite suddenly and are typically most severe during the first 24 to 48 hours of onset. Because most sufferers are elderly animals, these ailments can be debilitating. However, many dogs will start to improve after 72 hours. 

Though symptoms of vestibular disease can appear distressing, try to remember that this condition is not fatal, and most dogs completely recover within two to three weeks. 

What causes vestibular disease?

There are many potential causes of vestibular disease, though vets are often unable to diagnose the precise catalyst. Commonly known triggers for this condition include:

  • Polyps in the brain or inner ear
  • A tumor in the brain or inner ear 
  • Head trauma
  • Ear infections
  • Nerve damage
  • Old age 
  • Stroke 
  • Under-active thyroid 
  • Negative reaction to certain medications

How is vestibular disease in dogs diagnosed?

If your dog shows any of the signs listed above call your vet for advice. These symptoms could indicate a more serious condition. Therefore, communication with your vet over these symptoms is essential.

Based on your dog's medical history and overall health, your vet may suggest bringing them in for an examination or waiting to see if the symptoms begin to improve in a few days.

Is there a cure for vestibular disease and nystagmus?

While vestibular disease may cause your dog mild discomfort or motion sickness, the good news is that it isn't painful or dangerous and will likely clear up on its own without treatment within a few weeks.

If your dog is experiencing issues with nystagmus due to vestibular disease, please contact your primary vet or closest veterinary hospital for urgent care.

It is important to monitor your dog's symptoms carefully. If, after a few days, you notice that your dog's condition begins to worsen, notify your vet. They will complete an examination to help determine if there are other causes for your dog's symptoms.

If your dog suffers from nausea and vomiting due to vestibular disease, your vet may prescribe anti-nausea or other medications. 

Take care of their food and nutrition, as well. If your dog is having difficulties drinking water, your vet may suggest fluid therapy through an intravenous (IV) fluid administration to prevent dehydration. 

If vestibular disease is causing your dog's symptoms, the most commonly prescribed treatment is to wait while your dog recovers. Dogs with peripheral vestibular disease are more likely to get better than those with central vestibular disease. 

Can I help my dog recover from vestibular disease?

Provide your dog a comfortable place to rest while they recover, and ensure they have easy access to food and water. Since vestibular disease stems from balance issues, it's helpful to keep the floor clear of obstacles and block stairs so your dog won't be tempted to try to navigate them. 

You may be referred to Animal Eye Guys for follow-up care if it's determined that your dog has an eye condition that needs specialty treatment. 

Veterinary Ophthalmology Services in South Florida

Our board-certified ophthalmologist specializes in treating eye diseases and disorders in dogs and cats. We work closely with your pet’s primary care veterinarian to provide the best possible care for all ocular diseases that may be affecting your pet.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Is your dog suffering from an eye condition or disease? Contact our South Florida veterinary ophthalmologists today to book an examination. 

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