We were out when it happened, but fortunately our kids were home and knew to call right away as soon as it occurred. Rushing home our first thought is that it sounds like a stroke. We rushed our 12-year-old dog to the emerg vet – it was New Year’s Day so our regular vet was closed – and took her in expecting the worst, having had many dogs over the years and experiencing what looked like a total shut down of her faculties.
The vets were pretty quick to let us know it looked like what they referred to as “old dog” vestibular disease, actual name is idiopathic vestibular disease, (idiopathic meaning no known cause) and that basically it is nausea mixed with vertigo and that as scary as it is to look at, it is relatively common in older dogs but there is no known cause of it, or real cure short of treating the symptoms and waiting for the dog to recover. Which apparently most do.
“The vestibular system is composed of portions of the brain and ear and is responsible for maintaining our sense of balance. When something goes wrong with the vestibular system, it feels like the world is spinning. Dogs with idiopathic vestibular disease have some combination of the following symptoms:
- A head tilt
- They are unsteady on their feet and may fall over
- They circle in one direction or even roll across the floor
- Their eyes flick back and forth, up and down, or rotate in a circle (this is called nystagmus)
- An unwillingness to eat due to nausea
For us the treatment was to stop the nausea and the vertigo, and then keep her calm and quiet while her body worked thru it. The first 24 to 48 hours are the scariest. Not knowing if she is going to recover, or when, or how much. We were told most do make a full recovery if that is all that is wrong with her, but since the symptoms are so common to many other diseases it is tough to know if that is the real problem. Time is the only true way to know. After some anti nausea medicine and something to treat her anxiety, she seemed to be improving a little. We kept her at the emerg clinic so that way she could get 2 full days of rest and constant attention away from our other dogs and our noisy house. We visited her the morning after the episode happened, and as heartbreaking as it was to see her this way, we could see some improvement and the vets could tell she perked up with us there. After the second full day we took her home. Still staggering and needing more or less constant attention. Carrying a 50 lb dog in and out of the house every few hours is not a fun thing in the middle of winter, especially during the cold snap we just had, but we could see small improvements. Sitting up on her own. Looking around and seemingly being able to focus on things, and the fact she would flop over and change positions on her own. All good signs.
We took her in for a follow-up appointment at our regular vet yesterday (5 days after her episode), and everything seemed to be coming along pretty good. Sitting waiting to pay our bill, she actually got up on her own from her blanket and walked slowly, albeit a little clumsily, to the door obviously wanting to go outside. With a little help she walked outside and started to sniff around. Everyone was thrilled and amazed. This is a huge step in her recovery, and since bringing her home she has managed to walk around outside on her own quite a few times. Sitting down often to rest, but nonetheless, walking and sniffing and doing her business without assistance.
We’re not out of the woods yet, but there is hope of a full recovery, or at least a nearly full recovery. From what I’ve read many dogs recover fully, while some have slight head tilts or balance issues so only time will tell. Rarely there are dogs that never recover, but I’m hopeful that shedding a little light on this disease and its symptoms will help someone else who is going thru it. It is very scary and from the message boards I have visited it seems many people have given up too soon because they didn’t have all the info about the problem and thought euthanasia was the only option to stop the suffering. Please share this with anyone you know who has an older dog. Being prepared and informed could save a life and a lot of stress and worry.
The body, whether it be a human or a dog, has the ability to handle and fix many things on its own given enough time, patience and help. Don’t give up too soon. As Dylan Thomas so eloquently put it… “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rage at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
(disclaimer: I am not a vet, have no formal medical training, although I played doctor often as a child but that’s another story… this information if offered up only as helpful advice. Make sure you discuss with/and see a vet should you think your dog is experiencing this disease.)