Old Dog Syndrome - Canine Vestibular Disease - Complete Guide

This post is very detailed yet clear information source that is dedicated to cover every aspect of the canine vestibular syndrome, or so-called old dog syndrome. We've compiled facts and researched from various sources and prepared an easy to read overview. We hope that this information will help you and your little family member as it is our sincere intention.

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What is the vestibular system in dogs like?

If we're talking about dizziness on our website, why wouldn't we discuss dizziness in our little friends.  Just like in humans, a dog's ear is divided into 3 parts: outer, middle and inner ear. The vestibular system is present inside the inner ear. It sends out sensory information to the dog's brain that are important for it to maintain its balance and spatial orientation.  

SpatialOrientation: our natural ability to maintain our body orientationand/or posture in relation to the surrounding environment (physicalspace) at rest and during motion. (link)

The vestibular system is also connected to the eyes. That's why disturbance in the vestibular system can lead to abnormalities in eye movement. It is also linked to the muscles that help keep the dog's normal posture.

So, what's Canine vestibular disease?

According to VCA Animal Hospitals: "vestibular disease is a sudden, non-progressive disturbance of balance."

>It's common in old dogs and less common in younger ones. It can alsoaffect cats regardless of age and is then called Feline vestibulardisease.

One disease, Different names

'Vestibular Disease in Dogs': This name is used because the disease affects the dog's vestibular system.

'Canine idiopathic vestibular disease': "Canine" means relating to dogs. "Idiopathic" means that we don't exactly know what is causing it. This is a subtype of the more general "canine vestibular disease." 

' Old dog disease': a more colloquial name that is used because the disease is common in old dogs.

'Old rolling dog syndrome': This name is used because the disease can cause rolling and circling because it affects the dog's movement and balance.

What Causes Vestibular Disease?

The vestibular system sends information about the dog's position and movement in a message to the brain. The brain needs to be able to interpret the message properly for the dog to "feel" its spatial position or understand that it's moving. 

 When there's a balance or movement problem, we start to suspect either a lesion in the inner ear - it doesn't send a correct message- or a problem in the brain - it doesn't properly understand the inner ear's message. Put in more scientific terms; vestibular disease can either be a result of a peripheral cause (in the inner ear) or a central cause (in the brain). The peripheral form of the disease is more common than the central form.

Causes of the central form of the disease:

  • Brain Inflammation
  • Brain Infection
  • Head Trauma
  • Bleeding in the brain
  • loss of blood flow to the Brain
  • Brain tumor

Causes of the peripheral form of the disease:

  • Infections of the middle or inner ear
  • Drugs that are ear-toxic
  • Trauma
  • Tumors
  • Hypothyroidism: decreased level of the thyroid hormone in the dog's blood.
  • Ear cleaners that shouldn't be used when the drum is ruptured.
  • Congenital: the disease is present since the dog was born.
  • Idiopathic: we don't know what is causing it.
Chronicand recurrent inner and middle ear infections are more a common causein young dogs, while Idiopathic vestibular disease is more common inold dogs.

Middle and Inner Ear Inflammation

It's more common in younger dogs. Dogs that have long and heavy ears are more likely to develop ear infections. The most commonly affected breeds are Spaniel breeds and hound breeds.

Inflammation of the middle and inner ear can be caused by:

  1. infection: bacterial infection is more common, but yeast and fungus could also be involved;
  2. ear mites in the external ear;
  3. benign polyp in the middle ear;
  4. foreign objects, like grass seed;
Notevery middle or inner ear infection will cause vestibular disease. Infact, some dogs show no symptoms at all if it's only a minorinfection.

Idiopathic Vestibular Disease

It is more common in old dogs, and it can occur in any breed. What's really characteristic about it is that it starts suddenly and improves rapidly on its own even with little or no medical treatment

Idiopathic vestibular disease means that we don't exactly know what is causing the symptoms of the disease. However, it could be a result of a lesion in the inner ear that makes it send wrong messages to your brain. Another possible cause is an immune-mediated disorder.

Congenital vestibular disease

The condition is present since birth, so if the dog shows the signs and symptoms of vestibular disease before 3 months of age, it is probably due to a congenital cause.

Breeds such as Akita, Beagle, Doberman pinscher, German shepherd, English cocker spaniel, Smooth fox terrier and the Tibetan terrier are more likely to develop this condition.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Canine Vestibular Disease

The main symptoms of the disease are:

  • Acute onset: The symptoms start suddenly
  • Balance loss
  • The dog tilts its head. This can be mild, moderate or severe
  • Dizziness and falling down: it becomes very hard for the dog to walk as if it were drunk.
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abnormal jerky eye movement
  • Circling
  • Rolling
  • Excessive drooling: this is a result of dizziness and balance loss
  • Older dogs may find it difficult to eat and drink or become unable to go outside to urinate or defecate.
Ifonly one ear is affected, the dog will tilt its head, circle, shownystagmus only on the same side of the infected ear.

How long does canine vestibular syndrome last?

This depends on the underlying cause. The idiopathic vestibular disease lasts a short period that could be only a few days. It usually doesn't exceed 2 weeks in most dogs. However, some dogs will need more time until the head-tilt and loss of coordination fade away.

If the condition is due to an infection in the middle or inner ear or any other cause that makes the inner ear or its nerves inflamed, then the underlying cause needs to be treated to stop the symptoms.


The symptoms of canine vestibular disease can be pretty dramatic and even scary for some owners. This is especially true for older dogs. As the dog ages, the likelihood of developing a cerebrovascular disease increases and stroke is the most common manifestation of that. 

 If a stroke affects certain parts of the brain like the brainstem or the cerebellum, it can cause the same signs and symptoms of canine vestibular disease. So, it can be hard for the owner to know the difference between them. 

However, idiopathic vestibular disease is usually a temporary condition that can resolve on its own while a stroke can be more prominent. The veterinarian can also perform an MRI to diagnose if the dog has a stroke or not. 

 That's why it's crucial to visit the veterinarian if you notice any of the symptoms we've mentioned because it could be signs of a more life-threatening condition.


The veterinarian can reach a diagnosis of canine vestibular disease using:

  • Medical history: including the dog's age
  • Clinical signs and symptoms
  • Physical examination
  • Neurological examination
  • The disease's course: the idiopathic form will resolve in a few days.

If these aren't enough to reach a diagnosis, the veterinarian can also order:

  • Blood work
  • Urine tests
  • Skull x-rays: to search for infections of the middle and inner ear.
  • CT scans
  • MRIs
  • Brain stem evoked response


There are a few measures you can take to protect your dog from developing this condition

  1. Avoid head trauma
  2. Keep it away from toxic substances
  3. Don't overuse some medications like neomycin, aminoglycoside and loop diuretics
  4. Make sure your dog's ear drum is intact before you use ear cleaners or topical medications
However, it's common for old dogs to develop Idiopathic vestibular disease and you can't prevent your dog from developing it.


  1. Treatment of the underlying cause: for example, antibiotics are used to treat middle or inner ear infections. However, idiopathic cases can receive supportive treatment.
  2. Hospitalization and intravenous fluids: if the dog is severely affected. This continues until the dog can eat and walk without any help.
  3. Sedatives: if the dog is severely disoriented, sedatives will help it relax.
  4. Dimenhydrinate: for nausea and vomiting.

To wrap it up and complete the learning process, check out the video below that describes Vestibular Disease in Dogs:

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