When it comes to diagnosing doggy disorders or kitty conundrums, our pets' lack of language skills can makes things difficult. But some diseases are so distinctive that a diagnosis can be made almost the minute you lay eyes on the pet. Vestibular disease fits this description to a tee, er, wobble. Pets suffering from vestibular disease have a forlorn look in their spinning eyes, a tilt to their head and usually can’t walk in a straight line. And for good reason--they’re dizzy!
Stretch your mind way back to elementary school, when you were learning about the five senses, including the anatomy of the skin, eyes, tongue, nose and ears. (I still remember coloring the layers of the skin and the bones of the ear to this day!). It’s the ear that is the culprit in vestibular disease, as the inner parts of the ear are responsible for knowing the body’s orientation in relationship to the ground. The auditory bones (remember the stirrup, anvil and hammer?) and the semicircular canals are located in the inner ear and tell the brain whether the body is upside down or right side up. Collectively, they are known as the vestibular apparatus.
The semicircular canals are a series of three fluid-filled loops. Think of them like a level--the semicircular canals help keep that bubble in the middle of the fluid-filled part of the level. When there is trouble with the vestibular apparatus, the brain has trouble perceiving the body’s orientation in space. While we’re thinking back to elementary school, remember that game we played where we put our foreheads on the handle of a baseball bat, spun around it a certain number of times and then tried to run down the field? The dizziness that caused was due to the fluid in the semicircular canals sloshing all around!
Dogs and cats with vestibular disease feel exactly the same way. They have trouble standing and feel like the entire room is spinning. This can cause motion sickness, and their eyes can flash back and forth as if they just came off of a sit-and-spin.
Vestibular disease can be caused by an inner ear infection or a lesion in the brain, but the majority of cases we see are idiopathic, meaning we don’t really know what causes the episode. Senior pets are particularly prone to this dizzying disease.
But just because your pet’s head may be spinning doesn’t mean that yours should, too. Idiopathic vestibular disease generally resolves on its own within a week, and during that time your pet will need an extra helping of TLC. Motion sickness may lead to vomiting or anorexia, but even if they do feel like eating, these pets will need help to the food bowl. Extreme cases will require hospitalization for fluid and nutritional support until the worst of the symptoms subside.
Signs of vestibular disease are shocking to be sure. Many owners call in a tizzy, worried that their beloved pet has suffered a stroke. While strokes are common in humans, they are extremely rare in pets. If your pet is showing signs of vestibular disease, stay calm and try to comfort your dizzy dog or crazed cat. Give your veterinarian a call to schedule an exam to make sure there’s no underlying cause, and in no time hopefully your precious pet will be ready for a spin down the block.