Anyone who sees their beloved dog stumbling through the house would understandably become frightened.
And frantically thinking, “My dog is acting drunk and wobbly! What’s happening?”
Fortunately, their current balance and other neurological issues may not be permanent and can be resolved with quick treatment.
Read on for more information on vestibular disease and why it may cause your dog to act “drunk.”
What’s Going On?
Before you can fully grasp what your dog’s “drunken” behaviors—or more officially, vestibular dysfunctions—are, you should first understand the basics of the vestibular system.
This system is the collection of organs you use to maintain balance.
It is categorized as one of the primary sensory systems, specifically, a “proprioceptive” system.
(“Proprioception” is your body’s ability to sense its location relative to its surroundings. This sense also makes you aware of your body movements.)
This balancing act works in tandem with your visual senses to safely manage all your movements and position in your environment.
When these systems start to break down (leading to vestibular disease), keeping the body upright or movement correctly can be a significant challenge.
Many dog owners believe that this illness is largely attributed to age, hence the nickname “old dog syndrome.”
Unfortunately, vestibular dysfunctions can affect pets of all ages.
Because of this, some scientists assert that “canine idiopathic vestibular disease” is a more accurate term (“idiopathic,” meaning the disease’s cause is unknown).
Whether your dog is young or old, there are some key signs and symptoms you should be able to recognize to get them urgent veterinary care.
The most prevalent of these are described below.
Causes, Signs, and Symptoms of Vestibular Disease in Dogs
Vestibular disease can affect various parts of your dog’s body and develops for a wide range of reasons.
For example, causes of these dysfunctions can arise from any of the following:
- Infections in the inner or middle ear
Although these are some of the most well-known causes of vestibular disease in dogs, the problem is most often of unexplained origin.
Veterinary professionals also say that the vestibular system’s degradation or malfunctioning can be caused by ototoxicity from specific antibiotics.
This means that the drug’s side effects are specifically toxic to the ears, especially the auditory nerve or cochlea (inner ear).
Further, suppose your dog’s parents had vestibular disease.
If so, your pup is more likely to develop the same problem since affected animals can genetically pass it on.
Lastly, physiological responses or consequences from traumatic injuries or illnesses can give rise to vestibular disease as well.
For example, if your dog received a blunt force injury to the head, this can damage its inner ear, leading to vestibular system complications.
Internal medical issues due to thyroid gland abnormalities and central nervous system complications are possible causes, too.
No matter where in the body the problem is rooted, the symptoms you’ll most likely see include:
- Spinning and walking in circles
- Your dog may stand with its legs abnormally wide apart
- Head tilting (the most prominent symptom, presented in 86% of affected dogs)
- Falling or rolling to one side
- Involuntary eye movements
- Squinting or abnormal positioning of the eyeballs
- A lack of coordination, mostly expressed by stumbling and staggering
- Head shaking
- Motion sickness
Some of these symptoms are far more complex than others, as they affect several parts of the nervous and sensory systems all at the same time.
(In some cases, they are regarded as full disorders.)
These include vestibular ataxia, nystagmus, and strabismus.
What is Vestibular Ataxia?
On its own, “ataxia” means that the body is not coordinated with the nervous system.
This leads to abnormal, sometimes uncontrollable, movements in the following body parts:
Unlike the spinal cord or cerebellar (affecting the largest part of the brain, the cerebellum) types, vestibular ataxia stems from malfunctions in the inner ear and brainstem.
Here’s a closer look at what might be behind these issues:
- Middle or inner ear:
- Ear or skull tumors
- Traumatic injuries on the head or ears
- Infection (most likely from distemper)
- Thiamine (vitamin B) deficiency
- Ototoxicity from antibiotics (especially metronidazole)
In both cases, you can expect your dog to be unbalanced every time it walks, and it may even drag its toes on the ground while moving.
The dog’s strange wide stance while standing is an effort to stay upright, as even remaining still will become a challenge.
What are Nystagmus and Strabismus?
Nystagmus and strabismus are some of the other highly prevalent symptoms caused by vestibular disease.
This is because eye movements are deeply connected with the vestibular system, as the eyes’ reflexes are direct responses to the body’s movements and position in the environment.
As your dog observes and follows objects moving past it, the head’s movements influence where, when, and how the eyes’ muscles move.
The inner ears’ receptors gather information on the head’s position and relay that to the eyes via critical nerves.
When the vestibular system is damaged or disrupted, this causes nystagmus: involuntary movements which can be jerky or slow.
On the other hand, strabismus is the consequence of a lesion in the vestibular pathway, often affecting specific nerves.
This symptom can manifest in various ways, from misrouted nerve signals to significant physical displacement of the eye.
What is the Prognosis for Dogs with Vestibular Disease?
As you can see, vestibular disease has a wide range of causes and effects.
The many different symptoms and disorders that arise from this illness all have different prognoses, especially when considering individual dogs’ health.
Still, one thing is for sure: you must have your dog examined by a veterinarian right away.
This way, you can rule out other problems and determine whether the underlying cause is treatable.
A 2019 study on vestibular disease in dogs ended with 26 of the 93 dogs dying of the disease.
However, the authors noted that nearly all of them (26) were euthanized at the owner’s request.
The others passed suddenly due to complications during or after treatment.
Of the dogs that survived (66.1% for central vestibular disease and 73.7% for peripheral vestibular disease, grouped by the different divisions of the nervous system affected), they mostly overcame their symptoms.
The only lasting issues included mild ataxia and head tilt.
All this considered, it’s highly likely that your dog will be just fine after you discover symptoms of vestibular disease.
The best way to ensure their health and wellbeing is to see a veterinarian as soon as possible and start treatment straight away.
It’s scary to watch your dog struggle to move as you panic and think, “My dog is acting drunk and wobbly; why?”
Still, despite how impossible the problem may seem, your dog can recover with swift veterinary care.
If you’ve noticed abnormal movements, eye drifting, or any other symptoms listed above, alert your vet right away and get your pup the care it deserves.