My client is in tears as she carries her standard poodle into the lobby. There was no appointment because the problem came out of nowhere. “It’s like he had a stroke,” she suggests as we hurry to an exam room.
And that’s certainly how it looks. The poor dog can’t keep his bearings. His head is cocked sharply to the right, and he stumbles in the same direction as if trying to brace himself on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. He scrambles to his feet just to pitch starboard again. I steady his head, and see what I’m looking for in his eyes. His pupils drift slowly to the right before darting back to the left, over and over in dizzy rhythm.
Despite the unsettling turbulence of it all, my response is surprisingly passive. Odds are good that he’ll be fine in a few days and will never suffer anything like it again. He’s almost certainly dealing with a peculiar disorder called idiopathic vestibular syndrome—a sudden disturbance in the balance center of the inner ear.
As far as these dogs are concerned, the world is spinning. If you’ve ever made yourself dizzy by twirling in circles as a child or, as an adult (you do you!), you’ve experienced the exact same symptoms. But unlike this poodle, you only had to put up with them for a few seconds.
Nobody really knows what causes this (which is what idiopathic means), but it tends to happen in older dogs. The symptoms appear instantly and without warning, and are frightening if you’ve never experienced them before. The first few days are the roughest, but most dogs are back to their normal selves within a week or so without any treatment at all. Care revolves around keeping them safe from injury and as comfortable as possible, and some dogs need a bit of encouragement to get them eating and drinking again.
It’s important to note that there are other diseases that can cause similar symptoms, and affected dogs should always be taken to see a veterinarian. Vestibular patients are examined for evidence of things like inner ear infections or other neurologic abnormalities that could suggest deeper disease in the brain. But unless there’s a compelling cause for alarm, it’s usually premature to begin talking about brain scans when the vast majority of these dogs go home and recover.
We may not know what causes idiopathic vestibular syndrome, but it’s common enough that I see a case every month or two. We can’t do anything to make it happen less often, but hopefully if more people know about it, they’ll be spared some anguish when it happens to their own pet.
Dr. Mike Fietz is a small-animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.
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