Thoroughly Vetted: When old dogs get dizzy

If your aging dog loses his footing, don’t fret, but do get him to a vet. A dog with idiopathic vestibular syndrome usually recovers in a few days. If your aging dog loses his footing, don’t fret, but do get him to a vet. A dog with idiopathic vestibular syndrome usually recovers in a few days.

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.

Blondes really do have more fun. At least, that’s what I say. I’m Seabiscuit, and my best qualities include confidence, enthusiasm and energy. Let’s have a great time together!

I’m Desi, and if there’s one thing I love, it’s belly rubs. But I also like the park. And snuggling. And treats. Let’s meet up to see if we’re a match.

Maggie Moo here. I’m quiet (shy, some might say), but it doesn’t take me long to warm up to your everlasting affections. Still, I’d prefer a calm, peaceful home.

The name’s Zane, and I’m looking for a hiking buddy who can keep pace with me while exercising and relaxing. I’d prefer a home with only adults, please.

Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA, 3355 Berkmar Dr. 973-5959,, noon-6pm, daily

Posted In:     Living

Tags:     ,

Previous Post

LIVING Picks: November 15-21

Next Post

Big mac attack: Pastry chef brings the baked goods

Our comments system is designed to foster a lively debate of ideas, offer a forum for the exchange of ad hoc information, and solicit honest, respectful feedback about the work we do. We’re glad you’re participating. Here are a few simple rules to follow, which should be relatively straightforward.

1) Don’t call people names or accuse them of things you cannot support.
2) Don’t direct foul language, racial slurs, or offensive terms at other commenters or our staff.
3) Don’t use the discussion on our site for commercial (or shameless personal) promotion.

We reserve the right to remove posts and ban commenters who violate any of the rules listed above, or the spirit of the discussion. We’re trying to create a safe space for a wide range of people to express themselves, and we believe that goal can only be achieved through thoughtful, sensitive editorial control.

If you have questions or comments about our policies or about a specific post, please send an e-mail to

Leave a Reply

Notify of