What is Meant by Vestibular Disease in Dogs and Cats?

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The vestibular system is the part of the body responsible for maintaining balance. Vestibular disease means a problem with the balance system. Balance problems in dogs are relatively common. Head tilt, incoordination, and abnormal eye movements are common clinical signs. Owners may state that their dog has vertigo, is off balance or had a stroke.

There are two parts of the vestibular system: the peripheral vestibular system and the central vestibular system. The peripheral vestibular system is made up of the parts of the vestibular system that are outside of the brain (the inner ear and the nerve). The central vestibular system is the part of the balance system inside the brain (vestibular nuclei and their connections to other parts of the brain and spinal cord).

Could my dog have vestibular disease?

Signs of vestibular disease include head tilt (the head is cocked to one side so that one ear is closer to the ground than the other), a drunken walk characterized by leaning, falling or rolling to the side, abnormal jerking eye movements (called nystagmus) or strange position of the eyes (called strabismus).

There are other reasons that a dog or cat may hold the head funny or walk wobbly, so it’s always best to ask a veterinarian or see a neurologist.

How is Vestibular Disease Diagnosed?

A thorough neurological examination can tell us if your pet is suffering from vestibular disease. There are many causes of vestibular disease. In general, causes of vestibular disease affecting the inner ear (peripheral vestibular system) are less worrisome than causes inside the brain. Our neurologists will perform a thorough neurological examination to help find out if the symptoms are more likely to be coming from the inner ear or the brain.

While both inner ear and brain causes of vestibular disease can cause head tilt, wobbly walking, and abnormal eye movements, there are certain symptoms that make it more likely that the problem is within the brain. Some of the symptoms our neurologists look for that are more suggestive of a brain problem include changes in the level of alertness, dragging of the paws on one side of the body, high-stepping or jerky movements of the limbs and certain other findings.

Causes of peripheral vestibular disease include ear infections, idiopathic geriatric vestibular disease, toxins, hypothyroidism, cancer, and others.

Causes of central vestibular disease include encephalitis, brain tumors, strokes, certain toxicities, and others.

It is very important to determine the cause, as the treatment is different depending on the cause. Also, certain conditions such as ear infections are easier to treat than brain tumors.

What Tests are Needed to Diagnose Vestibular Disease in Dogs and Cats?

In general, there are three main steps to determining the cause of vestibular disease. At Southeast Veterinary Neurology, we take a step-wise approach.

First, a thorough history and general physical examination are performed. A neurological examination may determine if the problem is localized to the peripheral or central vestibular system.

Second, blood tests, X-rays, and sometimes a blood pressure measurement are performed. This does several things. It screens for the general health status of your pet, screens for underlying causes of vestibular disease, screens for cancer or infection in the lungs and helps determine if they are healthy enough to undergo anesthesia.

Third, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis are performed. Typically, an MRI is necessary to determine the cause of vestibular disease. Computed tomography (CT) scans are not sensitive enough to evaluate the central vestibular system.

How Do You Treat Vestibular Disease and What is the Outlook?

Treatment and prognosis can vary widely. Since many different conditions can lead to vestibular disease, the treatment and prognosis depend on coming to an accurate diagnosis. For example, a brain tumor causing vestibular disease is treated differently than a stroke. An ear infection is treated differently than intoxication. This is why a consultation with your veterinarian or a neurologist is recommended if you notice signs of vestibular disease. Many causes of vestibular disease carry an excellent prognosis and/or can be managed with medications.

Why should I bring my dog or cat with suspected Vestibular Disease to Southeast Veterinary Neurology?

Southeast Veterinary Neurology is Virginia Beach and South Florida’s most experienced and trusted name in veterinary neurology when it comes to vestibular disease in dogs and cats. We are the only team of board-certified neurologists in South Florida.

Additionally, we were the first neurologists in South Florida to use a high-field MRI. Our state-of-the-art hospitals are equipped with the latest technology, most advanced techniques, and a compassionate team of humble experts. Our neurologists have helped over 20,000 patients recover the ability to walk.