Idiopathic Vestibular Disease
By: Dr. Fiona Caldwell
For Pets Best Insurance
Idiopathic vestibular disease is a pet health condition that can initially be terrifying to any pet owner. Imagine one day your older dog is fine, then the next she is falling down to one side, sometimes even rolling because she can’t keep her balance and her eyes are jerking back and forth.
Owners often fear the worst, thinking that their pet can’t possibly recover from such a horrible disease. We often think of it like a ‘stroke’, which can cause one sided symptoms in people, but the disease is actually very different, and when appropriately diagnosed, generally has a much better outcome. And if you have Pet insurance through a company like Pets Best Insurance, you can rest easy knowing 80% of the vet bill will be reimbursed to you.
The vestibular apparatus controls our sense of balance. It allows us to orient our bodies in relation to our world. If the floor were tilted, you could lean to compensate for this and still maintain your balance. There is a left and a right side which each gathers information from our world to transmits this to the brain. If all of a sudden one side isn’t working anymore, this one sided information wreaks havoc on the brain, which thinks its world is spinning or lopsided. The patient will tilt their head, jerk their eyes or fall to one side, thinking their world is off balance.
Part of the vestibular system is located in the middle ear, and the vestibular nerve exits from a specific location on the brainstem. The three most common reasons for vestibular disease include an ear infection, a brain lesion and idiopathic, meaning nobody knows exactly why it occurred. Clinical signs of vestibular disease include ataxia, or incoordination, head tilting or turning to one side, and nystagmus, or jerky eye movements. Patients will often feel intense dizziness or even vertigo, which can lead to motion sickness and nausea, thus many animals will vomit as well.
Vestibular disease is often mistakenly referred to as a ‘stroke.’ A stroke is a vascular accident that cuts off blood flow to a certain portion of the brain. While this is a rare cause of vestibular disease, generally this isn’t a true stroke, as there has been no vascular accident in most cases.
A central brain lesion causing vestibular disease can be a very serious, and often pets won’t recover well from this. Advanced imagining, such as MRI or CT scan is often needed to diagnose exactly where the brain has been affected, how serious it is, and whether it can be treated. Although these diagnostic tools can be expensive, many pet insurance companies will cover them. Ear infection causing vestibular disease has a much more favorable prognosis, treating the ear infection generally leads to recovery. Idiopathic vestibular disease, or “old dog vestibular disease” is the most common vestibular disease seen in cats and dogs. Interestingly, cats in the northeast united states are most likely to get this disease in the late summer and early fall.
It is important to immediately take your pet to the veterinarian if he or she is having symptoms of this disease so that it can be determined if there is central lesion, or an ear infection. Since this disease affects almost exclusively older pets, it is a good idea to have screening blood work performed to ensure there are no other underlying diseases. Once idiopathic disease is confirmed, treatment generally involves controlling nausea and letting the disease take its course. Usually there is noticeable improvement in balance within 72 hours. Most pets are nearly normal within weeks.
There will be intensive nursing care in the beginning, as your pet will have trouble going outside to potty and getting to the food dish. It is important to protect them from stairs or slippery surfaces where the pet could potentially harm themselves. It is also equally important to challenge them too! They have to re-learn to use their bodies. Provide sure footing, like carpet or grass and encourage them to try to get around. After recovery, most pets can return to their normal lifestyles.
While this disease is frightening and terrifying in the beginning, your veterinarian can help assure you that idiopathic vestibular disease carries a great prognosis. It’s one of the few diseases where you really can relax and know that things will improve and your pet will get better.