Dizziness. Loss of balance.
An inability to walk; falling to the floor, or crashing into walls or objects.
A sensation of spinning despite being still, or that the world is spinning around you.
In inability to maintain a sense of up or down, no matter how hard you concentrate.
Changes in hearing, including tinnitus, even loss of hearing.
Out of kilter. A lack of harmony or balance.
We humans usually refer to these alarming sensations as vertigo.
When dogs or other animals experience what we know as the feeling of “vertigo,” it’s referred to as vestibular disease.
On August 26th, Finn, my almost-fourteen-year-old dog, developed vestibular disease.
It started at daybreak. Finn had been sleeping on my bed for a couple hours. I’m a light sleeper, and I heard and felt him shifting on his side of the bed. Knowing it was too early for me to want to get up, he was repositioning himself on the bed to snooze another hour. But as he tried to stand, he fell with a hard thud against my legs. He tried to stand again, and collapsed back onto the bed.
As Finn kept struggling to get up, I jumped out of bed to make sure he didn’t fall off, onto the hardwood floor. I carefully lifted him, which was a challenge, as he weighs 50 lbs and I almost never lift him, so that added to his sense of befuddlement. I placed him gently on the floor, then watched him stumble like a drunk after too many last calls through the doorway into the main living space.
If I hadn’t already lived through my own case of vertigo in 2008 as well as watching Meadow, one of my earlier Alaskan Malamutes, suffer with it a few years later, I wouldn’t have recognized what was going on with Finn and I would have freaked out. As it was, my heart beat faster with worry as I watched him stumble but I knew he wasn’t in imminent peril.
One minute you or your dog are completely normal, the next, totally discombobulated. And trust me, the first time you experience vertigo, you’re scared. It’s truly terrifying because nothing is as it should be. In my case, I was alone. As I struggled to get out of bed (where the world was spinning around me when I woke) and stand, I wondered if I’d had a stroke, if I was going to die. After slamming into the wall a few times, unable to navigate a straight line, I crawled to my phone and called a friend, who took me to a nearby emergency room.
Dogs seem to handle it much better than we humans do.
The good news is that vestibular disturbances usually resolves with time. In my case, I was prescribed a drug called Antivert, and within hours my balance was restored. There is also a series of head movements – called the Epley maneuver – that for many people resolves the inner-ear issue causing their vertigo. I had suffered from a worse-than-usual cold for about a week before my vertigo started, and the ER doc said I likely had an inflammation of my inner ear as a result of that virus. So far, I’ve never had another case of vertigo, and I hope I never do. It’s that awful.
I find it interesting that in my case, as well as those of Meadow and Finn, the inner ear issue started during sleep, in the middle of the night. I don’t know if that’s typical or not, but I’m glad that’s how it played out for us because it meant we were indoors and relatively safe from injury. Imagine if symptoms started while driving, or walking in a park, or swimming.
With dogs, sadly there’s no magic pill like the Antivert I was prescribed. As far as I know, there’s no canine version of the Epley maneuver, either. All one can do is make sure they’re safe from falls and manage their symptoms (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea) as they slowly improve and their balance returns. Each day since that first awful morning, Finn has slowly but consistently made gains. Day one, he barely moved except to go outside to pee and poop, but he still wanted to eat. Subsequent days he moved around a bit more, still stumbling a lot, and soon lost his appetite. Negotiating stairs off the deck into the yard at 2:00 am was no fun for either of us. Nor was having to wash his butt after each bout of diarrhea, three or four times a day. Finn, trooper that he is, endured it all with grace and humility. I, however, admit to sometimes needing several deep breaths as I worked on my patience. Lack of sleep will do that.
Patience is key. It can be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for the symptoms to resolve, and even then, some minor ones might remain. For example, while Finn no longer stumbles when he walks, he now has a head tilt, which makes him look adorably curious and interested in everything, but is a remnant of the original vestibular disturbance. That may go away with time, or it may be part of Finn for the rest of his days.
As I write this post today, Finn’s almost back to normal balance, except when he shakes his head and body (as dogs often do) and briefly stumbles. I knew he was truly on the mend when he began trotting again on our daily walks. At first the walks were so short and slow they barely qualified, but they grew in distance each day; I felt it was important for him to have fresh air and exercise, and maintain strength and flexibility. Plus, it was a way for me to gauge his status. I’m so grateful for neighbors granting us access to their fields where we can walk in peace and if Finn does fall, the grass is soft.
After a week of trying various things to address his diarrhea – a bland diet of rice and chicken; Pepsid; Greek yogurt; canned pumpkin – it finally cleared up. When Finn started hinting it was dinner time an hour earlier than usual yesterday, I knew his nausea was gone and his digestive system was back to normal.
The reason I share all this here is that a fair number of dogs will develop vestibular disease, especially older dogs (like Finn, and Meadow before him, who was ten). It’s often referred to as Old Dog Syndrome. Yet I had never heard or read about it when Meadow suffered her bout. After doing some research during her recovery, and learning that many people had their dogs euthanized shortly after a bout of vestibular disease because they erroneously thought they’d had a seizure and would never regain normal function, I decided to share my experience with Meadow in an article for The Bark magazine. I spoke with an expert who shared what is known, and not known, about vestibular disease in dogs, and some potential treatments. I wanted to make sure others with older dogs would be better prepared than I was when Meadow’s world started spinning.
I know that several readers following my blog are, like me, dog nuts, and while I hope they never have to watch their own aging dog struggle with vestibular disease, if it does happen, perhaps they can avoid the initial panic (and some expensive veterinary bills) and instead focus on keeping their pup comfortable while helping them slowly recover. Because in almost all cases, they will recover. That’s the good news.
Feature photo: Finn taking a break during a walk through the neighbors’ field, September 3, 2021.