About a year and a half ago, I had my three dogs at a park up the road from my house when my 14-year-old black lab, Desi, suddenly stumbled and fell over sideways. I thought she might have tripped in a hole, but deep down I feared there was something drastically wrong with her: a stroke was the closest thing I could think of that matched what I saw. She tried to get up and stumbled two steps and fell over again. When I got to her, she couldn’t move.
I didn’t know what to do – I was there alone with another disabled senior dog and a high maintenance devil of a dog that was going to be no help either. I immediately called the most knowledgeable person I knew: Judith from Old Dog Haven. Thank God she answered the phone and told me exactly what was going on: While it looked like a stroke, strokes are very rare in dogs and it was quite likely that Desi was having a vestibular event. Wait 15 – 20 minutes and she should be able to walk home with some help. Use the leashes or a towel as a sling if necessary. She may have residual effects but it was not life-threatening. What relief.
While sitting in the park and trying to keep Desi calm, I did some research. (What did we do before Smartphones?).
What is Vestibular Disease?
The Vestibular System is what keeps the head and body oriented with gravity. It includes sensors in the inner ear that provide a sense of balance and equilibrium. During a vestibular event, the brain is unable to recognize the information from the inner ear and the result is much like being super drunk with the spins. (Yep, that’s about how Desi looked!)
Vestibular disease typically affects dogs larger dogs (check) who are 12-14 years old (check), particularly Labs (check). The causes are unknown in most cases, but can rarely be caused by ear infections, tumors, cancer in the ear or brain tumors. Symptoms come on very suddenly and are drastic and frightening to witness. Dogs can stagger and stumble, roll, have head tilt, eyes that dart or roll, have facial paralysis, head tremor, and body weakness.
While a visit to the vet can provide peace of mind, there is no medical treatment for Vestibular Disease and the symptoms of an event usually go away after a few days. That said, I’ve read that some people have treated it with Prednisone and Acupuncture and I’ve tried Dramamine, though I’m not sure how well it worked. If you do go to the vet, just keep in mind that some vets don’t know about this disease and some animals have been euthanized unnecessarily so go in well-informed and get second opinions if you need to.
After 20 minutes, Desi was able to stand and walk home, albeit with a leash sling under her belly and frequent stops. She didn’t want to move for 24 hours, and then only for short distances. Typically what would happen is that she would realize she really had to go to the bathroom and she’d try to get up quickly and make her way to the door but would fall somewhere on the way and pee. Although she was very nauseous (her moans were so sad) she did not throw up, but she did not want to eat or drink on her own and required hand feeding and a lot of coaxing. After the third day, she was walking normal distances (outside to go to the bathroom with assistance), and after the fifth day she was almost back to normal.
How to prepare
These are things to have on hand to treat your dog:
- Irresistible food. Chicken and rice, baby food, or a bland canned food. Normal treats will probably not suffice.
- A lot of towels. Not your normal three dog towels, more like 10. Thrift stores and garage sales are great places to pick up towels on the cheap. I guess doggie diapers would work too – I hadn’t thought of that until now.
- A sling or harness. This is particularly important with a big dog. Desi is 75 lbs which isn’t even that big for a Lab but 75 lbs of dead weight is not easy to carry. Get a real dog harness or carrier. I got a cheap one made by Outward Hound that works ok but falls off her so I would recommend one that is more fitted and has a chest strap like this one by RuffWear.
- Dramamine: 1-2 mg per kg (05-1 mg per pound) twice daily
- Prepare for care. Make arrangements for what you would do if your dog needed 24-7 care and you weren’t able to provide it.
How to treat
- Keep your dog still. The most dangerous part of this illness is the potential injury your dog could suffer from falling. Desi almost hit her head really hard on a table leg during her first episode. They really don’t have control and should not be left to navigate on their own. If possible leash, crate or pen your dog.
- Keep things calm and quiet and provide moral support. Dogs don’t understand why their world is suddenly turned literally upside down from their perspective and will need reassurance. Don’t get upset because dogs can read that and will get more worried.
- Hand feed and water your dog. They can be very nauseous and may not want to eat. If they refuse even food you would eat yourself, you may have to take them to the vet to get an IV. During the first day of an episode, Desi will only eat cooked chicken.
- Prepare for indoor restroomage. Keep a lot of towels under their rear and don’t let them get up suddenly and stagger towards something because they will likely fall and pee on it (oh my poor sleeping bag…)
- Leave a light on. This helps them keep their bearings.
- Be prepared to provide 24-7 care for at least 48 hours. Desi requires 3 days of constant monitoring when she has a vestibular event. Luckily most of the episodes have happened on the weekend and I can work from home for a day or two.
Desi has a very slight head tilt and when she runs back up to me with the ball her back legs are off to the side a bit (reminds me of two people in a horse costume). But she runs and fetches just like she used to, which at 15 years old now is a blessing. Not every dog is lucky enough to recover as well as Desi did, but most are not bothered by the symptoms that linger (usually head tilt). You can search YouTube for dogs with vestibular syndrome – there are tons of videos.
However, Desi used to love the water. She’s a Lab, right? She used to jump into the water after the ball and swim and swim. I had even taken her to a doggie spa in the wintertime a few times so she should swim in a heated pool which she loved. Since the onset of her Vestibular Disease, water makes her panic. I took her to the lake twice last summer – the first time I thought the waves were too much for her and the second time in calmer water I realized she was just done with swimming in the lake – she was just stressed out and not happy. This past winter I took her to Mega-Dogs dog swimming pool in Woodinville (which is awesome) and she was totally panic-stricken. It looks like water just doesn’t agree with her anymore, now that her vestibular system has been compromised.
It can come back
Some owners report that they have not witnessed subsequent events in their animals but many report repeat occurrences. I’m writing this on the weekend of Desi’s fifth event in a year and a half. Each event has been similar, although there were two in the middle that weren’t as severe as the first or the one she’s currently going through. I’ve actually been surprised by this one – it has been worse than the last three and I’d hoped they would get less severe over time but I fear the severity has been random.
One day last summer I came home from work and she was having an attack. I don’t know how long it had been going on, but it made me not want to spend too many hours away from home at a time again.
Having old dogs is a lot of responsibility and work, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Addendum: Unfortunately, this time Desi’s symptoms did not get better after a few days like they usually did. On day four her breathing became labored and she was not just dizzy but weak. I took her to the vet and they discovered a football-sized tumor in her abdomen. She passed away that night, just two days after I wrote this. She was 15 and we were so lucky she was happy and able up almost until the very end. So the takeaway is to get your dog to the vet if symptoms change or you want a concrete diagnosis. In Desi’s case, we are fairly sure she did have a vestibular event, but her tumor made it impossible for her to recover.