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Disorientation can occur acutely, or develop and worsen over time depending on the cause. You may notice that at times, or consistently, your dog is developing what seems to be a struggle to maintain a balanced position, or perhaps all of a sudden his eyes cannot focus and dart back and forth. Disorders related to the vestibular system can be broken down into the peripheral and central disease. It is a common neurological condition in dogs, with no predisposition to sex or breed.

Symptoms of Disorientation in Dogs

There are many symptoms associated with the vestibular disease. Prompt attention by a qualified primary veterinary caregiver is the best course of action and will result in the most positive prognosis. Schedule a visit for your dog with the appropriate veterinarian without delay if you see any of the following abnormal signs:

  • Head tilt (this can range from mild to severe)
  • Darting eyes (nystagmus)
  • Eyes which are abnormally aligned and may be accompanied by a squint (strabismus)
  • Drooping eyelid or presence of third eyelid (Horner’s syndrome)
  • Facial paralysis
  • Head tremor
  • Circling
  • Falling or rolling to one side
  • Unsteady gait (ataxia) or inability to walk
  • Unable to stand, or uses a wide stance
  • Vomiting
  • Development of motion sickness when in a vehicle


Vestibular disorders are either peripheral or central. The vestibular system is an important and critical part of the central nervous system, coordinating with the visual (focus) and the gravity (detected by skin receptors detecting pressure). The sense of orientation experienced by your pet will be affected by the proper function of these neural systems.

  • Idiopathic vestibular disease - This is a peripheral disorder. It presents with acute onset and severe nystagmus (rapid, darting eyes), which causes extreme vertigo because the eyes cannot focus on the horizon. It can disappear over time without treatment. Some owners have been known to confuse idiopathic vestibular disease episodes as seizures.
  • Inner ear disease - Peripheral as well, inner ear disease has a slower progression and may exhibit varying degrees of facial paralysis and Horner’s disease (drooping eyelid). The most common cause is otitis media (inflammation of inner ear), with bacteria moving into the eustachian tube of the ear. Fortunately, antibiotics work well as a cure.
  • Central vestibular disease - The prognosis is less optimistic for this type of disorientation in dogs. There can be brainstem damage, leading to cranial, motor, position and movement difficulties. Illnesses such as Lyme disease and liver dysfunction can precipitate central vestibular disease.
  • Vestibular syndrome - This peripheral disorder was originally called geriatric vestibular syndrome because it was documented in older dogs. Recent studies reveal that middle-aged dogs have also been affected, thus the name change. The episode lasts between a few days to a few weeks, and usually the dog can be nursed through the condition with favourable recovery (occasionally a dog will end up with a permanent mild head tilt).

Causes of Disorientation in Dogs

The causes for disorientation in dogs are not totally known; further study and discovery will enlighten the medical field as to the mysteries of this condition.

Idiopathic vestibular disease

  • It is suspected that a cause may be a lesion in the eighth cranial nerve (auditory vestibular nerve) which brings instructions and sound relating to spatial position and movement into the brain
  • Thought to be a possible condition affecting the antigens (a substance that causes the immune system to produce antibodies) of the vestibular nerve; the substance can be outside the body like a chemical or virus, or inside the body like bacterial toxins Inner ear disease
  • Fungal infection
  • Neoplasia (growth of abnormal tissues)
  • Conditions that cause a defect in chemical reactions in the body such as hypothyroidism
  • Toxicity of antibiotics
  • Bacteria from otitis media

Central vestibular disease

  • Head trauma
  • Stroke
  • Antibiotic toxicity
  • Neoplasia
  • Thiamine deficiency
  • Granulomatous meningoencephalitis
  • Liver disease (with metabolic brainstem degeneration)
  • Lyme disease
  • Canine distemper
  • Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
  • Ehrlichiosis, which is a tick-borne bacterial infection

Vestibular syndrome

  • Thought to be a complication of old age, but can be seen in middle-aged dogs
  • Studies show it may be related to inflammation of nerves connecting the inner ear to the cerebellum that controls equilibrium, spatial orientation and body balance

Diagnosis of Disorientation in Dogs

Prompt veterinary care is essential in order to diagnose the cause of the disorientation that your pet is experiencing. Having no balance, or having the sense of being unable to focus and walk will affect your dog in many ways. The veterinarian will concentrate on making your dog comfortable first and foremost. If the nausea and spatial disorientation are extreme, your veterinary caregiver will administer medication to ease the symptoms. Some pets, who have been too distressed and imbalanced to drink, for example, will be given intravenous fluids to hydrate and equalize the system.

The veterinarian will ask for a history of your pet’s behaviour over the past weeks, and will want to know if you can pinpoint how and when the symptoms began. The assessment of the nystagmus (eye movement direction, horizontal or vertical for example) can lead to a diagnosis. However, because animals can learn somewhat to adapt to balance, the indications may be variable.

Ataxia (unsteady gait) may be difficult to interpret because of the stress that your dog is going through as a result of the imbalance issues, and the possible need of support for your dog to be able to walk. A no slippery or regular surface may be required because your pet will find any flaw in the surface difficult to navigate in his state.

Indications for the veterinarian may be facial paralysis (as in peripheral) or a change in mental activity or weakness on the entirety of one side (as in central). If your veterinary professional is unable to determine the diagnosis of why your pet is disoriented, she may choose further diagnostic tools.

After a complete physical and neurological examination, the veterinarian may decide to analyse baseline diagnostics by checking blood pressure, complete blood count, urinalysis, thyroid level and serum biochemical profile. Examination of the ear canal, or very careful removal of substances of the ear canal (for analysis) may be done.

If the veterinarian has a suspicion of a central lesion, or after a few days or weeks the symptoms are not ceasing, more intensive testing may be ordered. MRI (to image the brain or middle and inner ear) could be ordered to look for central or peripheral disease. If further testing is necessary, an option is a spinal tap to rule out meningitis or encephalitis.

Treatment of Disorientation in Dogs

It should be noted that some types of disorientation in dogs can clear up on its own while others may point to a more serious condition. A central vestibular disorder has limited hope for a successful treatment because the brainstem area does not respond well to neurosurgery. There are drugs currently under study with the hopes of offering a solution to the disease, as in the case of tumours for example.

In the case of peripheral disorders, the scenario is quite different. Please note the following treatment procedures that may accompany a diagnosis of a peripheral disorientation (idiopathic, inner ear or vestibular syndrome):

  • All treatments will be based on the underlying cause
  • Medication for nausea, vertigo and dizziness may be necessary
  • Intravenous therapy can be utilized if your dog needs fluid recovery because he has not been eating or drinking enough
  • Sedatives are sometimes used to calm dogs as a part of the recovery process
  • Idiopathic vestibular disease tends to resolve with time and the support of the owner
  • The inner ear responds well to antibiotic treatment but the duration of medication must be carefully monitored in order to fully treat the infection
  • Surgery and radiation can be an approach to resolve abnormal tissue growth
  • Vestibular syndrome most often resolves on it’s own with time
  • Complications due to antibiotic toxicity may be eradicated after the antibiotic is stopped

Recovery of Disorientation in Dogs

As is the case with any time that your pet is ill, follow up with the veterinarian is always part of the equation. The recovery process may be a challenge, but with your caring manner and practical support, your dog can often resume a sense of normalcy. Your primary veterinary caregiver will remind you that patience as you await results is key with a diagnosis of any vestibular complication.

Remain calm and caring at all times. Offer comfort, warmth, and attention. Aid your dog as necessary with balance needs in his day to day function. Dietary changes might be suggested, as will a follow-up visit at the clinic a few days after the initial appointment. It should be noted that a head tilt may remain, even after your pet recovers. Relapse of vestibular disease is not the usual scenario.