A: These symptoms are a common cause of panicked calls to the veterinary office. It is a very distressing situation to watch your beloved pet go experience an event like this. While dogs can have strokes, there are much more common causes of the symptoms you describe – and the most common one actually cures itself.
Older dogs can experience a condition called idiopathic geriatric vestibular disease. For some unknown reason, their brains suddenly tell them that they are on a carnival ride that just won’t stop. Their body responds the same way yours would if you were on a fast moving merry-go-round for hours and hours: dizziness, nausea, nystagmus (reflexive eye motion), and staggering gait. The bad news is that these symptoms can last for up to three days. The good news is that they correct themselves and are much, much better by three days after the onset of signs. Some residual head tilt or occasional stumbling may last for a few weeks, but are generally well tolerated. Most dogs that experience this type of episode never have recurrence of the symptoms.
All of these symptoms come about due to a malfunction of the balance apparatus of the brain. Although the malfunction is most often the type of self-limiting disease described above, there are circumstances where other conditions can produce the same effect. For example, inner or middle ear infections can do the same thing. These infections are different than the more typical external ear canal infection (otitis externa) commonly seen in dogs. Inner or middle ear infections are more serious and require systemic antibiotics. Brain tumors, strokes, and infections that are localized to the vestibular center of the brain are also possible culprits.
Veterinarians can help your pet feel more comfortable during a vestibular event by prescribing anti-nausea medications and/or tranquilizers. The bottom line is that these symptoms do require a visit to your veterinarian, but do not warrant panic. Even though it’s scary, most of the time your pet will recover fully.