What is vestibular disease?

Vestibular syndrome is a range of diseases that affect the vestibular system, a complex series of nerves and components responsible for balance and coordination.

The system consists of the vestibular apparatus, which is located within the inner ear, and the vestibulocochlear nerve, which sends sensory impulses to the brain.

What causes vestibular disease in dogs and cats?

In animals, vestibular disease can be attributed to the central or the peripheral vestibular system and can be caused by a range of diseases or conditions that affect these areas.

Causes of peripheral vestibular disease

  • Inner ear infections
  • Inflammation
  • Tumours in the ear


Causes of central vestibular disease

  • Head trauma
  • Stroke
  • Infections
  • Brain malformations or problems
  • Reactions to medicines
  • Toxicity from certain types of antibiotics

It’s important to note, however, that some animals can develop the condition, even if no specific medical reasons are found. This is known as idiopathic vestibular syndrome. In older dogs, this is also referred to as ‘old dog vestibular syndrome’.


What are the symptoms of Vestibular disease in dogs and cats?

Damage to the vestibular system can cause a number of symptoms. When it comes to vestibular disease in dogs and cats, symptoms can include:

  • Loss of balance or ‘wobbly’ legs
  • Lack of coordination – e.g. clumsiness and falling over
  • Head shaking
  • Circling to one side or walking in circles
  • Unusual posture or head tilt
  • Rapid, darting eye movements (nystagmus)

Many animals suffering from vestibular disease may also experience loss of hearing, facial paralysis, vomiting or vision loss. Similarly, while experiencing symptoms, your pet’s behaviour may change – they might start moving awkwardly or changing their sleeping or eating habits to counteract the vestibular signals.




How is vestibular disease diagnosed?

To treat vestibular disorders in cats or dogs, veterinary professionals will first need to determine which part of the vestibular system has been affected – the central components located in the brain, or the peripheral components in the inner and middle ear.

A thorough neurological examination is also used to highlight the location of the problem.

If your pet is thought to have peripheral vestibular disease, your veterinary professional will need to conduct a physical examination of the ear to check for any signs of inflammation, tumours or infections. This is normally done under anaesthetic. In cases where the vestibular disease has affected the central vestibular system, a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis may be collected to determine the presence of any cancerous or infectious cells. Advanced imaging, such as MRI or CT scans are also used to confirm the diagnosis and to help determine the treatment needed.


If my pet has vestibular disease will they get better?

Treatment for vestibular disease in animals entirely depends on the specific case and severity of the causes. If the vestibular disease is a result of another condition, the underlying cause will be treated first. For example, if your pet is suffering from a minor ear infection, this should clear up quickly, however, if the vestibular disease is caused by something more serious, such as encephalitis, recovery may be longer. A more accurate prognosis will be given once your veterinary neurologist has completed all necessary examinations, and a diagnosis has been confirmed.

For animals suffering from idiopathic vestibular disease, where a cause has not been determined, there is no specific treatment available. While, in most cases, symptoms will only last a short amount of times and will generally disappear, in other animals symptoms such as a permanent head tilt can last for several years.

If you suspect your pet might have vestibular disease just get in touch and we’ll be happy to help. If you’re a referring vet, it’s easy to start a referral case.