Don't let Vestibular Disease turn your dog's life upside down
That day started just like any other day. I got up, got ready for work, and went downstairs to walk Lady. Lady, as usual, was waiting for me on her checkered dog bed. She looked at me, got up, and then promptly fell over. I ran down the stairs and Lady tried to get up again and fell over. She then threw up on my shoes. Sadly, she looked up at me still trying to rise. I was in a panic thinking of all the afflictions that can befall older dogs—stroke, heartattack, some sort of poisoning. I grabbed a comforter and wrapped Lady in it and carried her to my car. We then proceeded to make a mad dash to the Veterinarian's office. He and I pulled up to his office (which opens at 6:30 AM) at approximately the same time. And, he escorted a tearful me carrying a quilt-wrapped Lady through the backdoor into his emergency room.
He took one look at my dog's eyes and said, "Vestibular Syndrome." Of course, this meant nothing to me. "It's not a stroke," I asked. He looked at her eyes again, which, I now noticed, were moving slowly back and forth without control. "Vestibular Syndrome," he confirmed. "Of course," he said, "I'll want to do blood-work to rule out any other possibilities."
For the next few hours, I waited while Lady was x-rayed to rule out any abdominal tumors and her blood was screened for abnormalities. All x-rays and blood-work proved normal. Lady, now on an IV drip since she was too nauseous to eat or drink—although she did make a valiant effort, laid on the floor of her kennel looking at me pitifully. The Vet explained that Lady would most likely be unable to eat or drink for a day or two. She remained at the Clinic for a day and a half on IV before I took her home. By that time, her eye movement was less rapid, and the Vet told me that Lady's case of Vestibular Syndrome was a very mild one. I would need to hand-feed her for at least a week, and her eye movement should be back to normal in a few days.
He was certainly right. After only a day, Lady's eyes were back to normal. But, she walked very tottery and I could tell that her sense of balance was off. The Vet had given me anti-nausea drugs for Lady and he had given her a diuretic and steroid injections in his office. Lady ate only a little, although she seemed much more thirsty. She had to be walked every two hours—the diuretic was certainly doing its job! In addition, since dogs with Vestibular Syndrome are more sensitive to sound and become confused by light changes, Lady's room was kept bright day and night and I kept all the noise in the house to a minimum. This was difficult since my ever-curious herd of cats (all four of them) kept creeping down the stairs to gaze at Lady and try and paw at her while she slept.
Although I had some experience with Vestibular problems caused by inner ear infections, I had never seen anything this extreme. Lothario, my cat, had a severe inner ear infection that caused him to walk unsteadily for several days and to tilt his head to the right. This head tilt lasted for a couple of weeks before he righted himself with the help of anti-biotics. Lady, I now noticed, was also tilting her head. The vestibular system is the part of the body in humans and animals that allows us to perceive up and down. It senses the position of the head and body in space in relation to gravity and movement. In other words, it is what tells up that up is up and down is down. Without it, we are lost—floating in a world that has neither ceiling nor floor. No wonder my poor dog looked bewildered! Imagine a sort of extreme sea-sickness or if you've had an inner ear infection that caused dizziness and nausea, multiply it by a hundred and you have an idea of what this disease is like. And, since a dog's sense of hearing is much more acute than ours, noises become even more jarring when they have no sense of balance and order.
The signs of Vestibular Disease (which is also called Vestibular Syndrome) are abnormal eye movement, dizziness, and incoordination. Because of these severe symptoms, your dog will most likely also vomit and lose control of their bowel functions. They may lean or fall over. Some dogs roll continuously from side to side. Nystagmus (the abnormal rhythmic movement of the eyes) may last for several days or only hours. Your dog will be very frightened and easily upset by medium to loud noises and darkness. Lifting your dog, which unfortunately was unavoidable for me at many times, also upsets them since it further undermines their precarious sense of balance. This is a very frightening disease to see. My Vet told me that many pet-owners think their pet is dying. I certainly did.
Although I had never heard of this disease before Lady came down with it, my Vet told me that it is fairly common in dogs. It occurs spontaneously in middle aged to older dogs—12 years old is the median age effected—and the recovery rate (given care) is one hundred percent. Affected dogs generally improve on their own within two weeks with proper nursing and hydration. Some dogs may take up to six weeks to recuperate. Lady, who had a mild case, is completely back to normal after 2 and a half weeks. However, the first week she did require hospitalization (1 night at the Vet's on IV and part of another day) and then I had to hand-feed her every few hours. Because dogs are very nauseous, they usually have to eat very small meals. I fed Lady every two hours and gave her water at that time. Some dogs experience increased thirst and will drink themselves sick. I limited Lady's access to water and made sure that she took her pills twice daily. Since Lady's sense of balance was off, she had a hard time eating from her food-bowl—hence the hand feeding. By the second week, she was able to eat at normal meal times and from her own bowl and her water consumption was back to normal.
I had a very hard time keeping Lady clean during her ordeal, and eventually ended up shaving her fur down as far as possible. Although I tried using pet wipes to clean her, I found that plain old water was the best remedy. Lady's tail looks a little rat-like now that the fluffy cocker spaniel fur has been sheared away, but it will grow back and her short-fur kept her clean and dry during her sick days. My Vet told me that skin irritation is a real problem in recuperating dogs since they can't move very well and often urinate in their beds and are unable to move out of them. I checked Lady almost constantly the first week to make sure she was clean and dry. It was hard work, but it definitely paid off and now Lady is happy and hopping to go out for her walks again.
I wish I had heard of Vestibular Disease before Lady came down with it. I checked my big book of dog diseases and it has a very small entry. Online, I found several pages in veterinary online encyclopedias devoted to its symptoms and treatment. But, although it is apparently not uncommon, I don't know of anyone whose pet has been stricken with it. If I had known about it, perhaps I couldn't made Lady's first morning a little less frightening for her. No doubt my shrieking and wailing only added to her confusion and turmoil! If your dog is ever afflicted with this problem, try to remain calm—it won't be easy. This is truly a horrifying disease to see and it really looks much worse than it is. Just remember that recovery with veterinary and your own home care is certain. My Vet did tell me that sometimes the head tilt persists for several weeks, but balance restoration and return of appetite is assured. Just remember that this disease is frightening, but thankfully temporary.
Lady is back to her old self, munching bones and lying on her favorite bed. Right now, she's watching me type while keeping an eye on the devious Maine Coon that is edging toward her food dish. There she goes—and Tig the Kitty-Thief is running up the stairs with a piece of stolen kibble in her mouth. Lady looks at me happily as if to say, "Never trust a cat!" It may've taken a while, but we are back to all our normal selves.