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Vestibular Disease in Dogs

by Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

Canine idiopathic vestibular disease, which is also sometimes called “old dog disease” or “old rolling dog syndrome,” can be very scary for pet parents. To the untrained eye, the symptoms may mimic serious, life threatening conditions such as stroke or a brain tumor.

The good news is that this condition, which is described by veterinarians as fairly common, typically disappears in a matter of days.

VCA Animal Hospitals define vestibular disease as a sudden, non-progressive disturbance of balance.

“Idiopathic refers to the fact that veterinarians can’t identify the source of the balance issue,” said Dr. Duffy Jones, DVM, a veterinarian with Peachtree Hills Animal Hospitals of Atlanta in Georgia. “There are a lot of theories such as inflammation, but as with some humans who suffer from vertigo, we really don’t know the cause.”

Dr. Keith Niesenbaum, DVM, a veterinarian with Crawford Dog and Cat Hospital in Garden City Park, New York, and who has been practicing for 32 years, said that idiopathic vestibular disease is more common in older dogs and there really isn’t a breed that is immune.

“Anecdotally, I’ve seen it more in large breed dogs, but it can also happen with small breeds as well,” Niesenbaum said.

Symptoms of Idiopathic Vestibular Disease 

Deb Hipp of Kansas City, Missouri, was preparing to go out of town for a few days when her 17-year-old dog, Toby, suddenly had more trouble than normal getting up.

“He has some mobility issues, so I thought he was just tired, so I waited another ten minutes and tried to get him up,” Hipp said. “On the second attempt, he was having trouble placing his paws to stand and I immediately took him to the emergency vet.”

Hipp thought Toby might have had a stroke, but the veterinarian made a note of Toby’s eyes, which were darting back and forth. After some blood tests and a more thorough exam, he diagnosed idiopathic vestibular disease. By that time, in addition to not being able to stand and the darting eyes, Toby also displayed other symptoms of the disease, which include:

  • Head tilt, which may be slight to extreme
  • Acting dizzy and falling down, which may remind people of someone who is drunk
  • Nausea and/or vomiting  
  • Dogs may also turn in circles or roll

“The symptoms are acute, or immediate,” said Jones. “The symptoms will not be a slow progression but happen all of a sudden. There really aren’t any symptoms that can be a sign this is coming on.”

Medical Treatment for Idiopathic Vestibular Disease

Jones said it is important to get your dog to its veterinarian as soon as you see any of the signs, as the symptoms are similar to that of other more serious conditions, such as an inner ear infection, stroke, brain tumor, or seizure.

Jones said idiopathic vestibular disease is confirmed by a veterinarian upon a complete physical examination, such as checking the eye movement, which would be rolling in cases of a stroke, and lifting the paw and flipping it over to see if the dog puts his paw back. “If the dog can flip his paw over, it typically isn’t a stroke,” said Jones.

Niesenbaum said that once the condition is diagnosed, the dog is typically treated at home unless the dog is vomiting and is at risk of dehydration, at which point he will hospitalize the dog so it can be put on IV fluids.

“If the dog goes home, we will typically prescribe an anti-nausea medication and something to help with dizziness,” Niesenbaum said.

Home Treatment for Idiopathic Vestibular Disease

Jones said that dogs can eat, but due to the nausea, they may not want to eat. He added that it is important to watch for hydration issues. Other concerns include keeping the dog in a confined area, and not allowing them to climb stairs or be on the furniture.

“The dog will really be off balance and if there are stairs or he gets on the furniture, he may fall and break bones,” said Jones.

Another consideration, especially if it is a large dog, is getting the dog outside to go to the bathroom. This was a big concern for Hipp, whose dog, Toby, weighs 60 pounds.

“Toby had mobility issues, so I had bought a special harness to help him up,” said Hipp. Still, when Toby was in the first days of idiopathic vestibular disease, he was dead weight, not being able to stand or walk at all.

After conferring with her veterinarian, Hipp was advised to hospitalize Toby.

“I was leaving town and didn’t want to leave him with the pet sitter. Although we were convinced Toby would recover, I didn’t want her to have to pick him up and take him outside,” said Hipp.

Niesenbaum said if you don’t have a harness, you can use a towel as sling to help your dog stand.

The good news is that like most dogs with this condition, Toby completely recovered within a matter of days and now even goes on his daily short walk. “It can sometimes take a couple of weeks, but if they’re not improving after 72 hours, we know it could be something more serious,” said Jones.

Some dogs do not recover completely from the head tilt. Even if your dog has appeared to have completely recovered, it’s important for the dog’s veterinarian to see the dog again just to be sure.

“I don’t get to give a lot of good news to owners of geriatric dogs when they have serious conditions, but this really is the ‘good news’ condition in that most dogs will survive and recover completely,” Jones said.

This article was verified for accuracy by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM. 


“Old Dog” Vestibular Disease

Head Tilt, Disorientation in Dogs

Loss of Balance (Unbalanced Gait) in Dogs

Don’t Kill Old Rolling Dogs

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Lymphoma in Dogs

Cancer of the Lymphocytes in Dogs

Lymphoma is a type of cancer that originates in the lymphocyte cells of the immune system. A type of white blood cell, lymphocytes play an important and integral role in the body’s defenses.

There are two forms of lymphocytes: B and T cells. Lymphoma may involve neoplastic proliferation of T or B, or non-B/non-T type lymphocytes, occurring primarily in the bone marrow, lymph nodes, and visceral organs. But mostly cases involving B-lymphocytes are seen in dogs.

Although rare in dogs, lymphoma is more prevalent in Boxers, golden retrievers, saint bernard, basset hounds, Airedale terriers, Scottish terriers, and bulldogs.

Symptoms and Types

Symptoms are variable depending upon the location and stage of tumor, but generally, the symptoms that are common in all forms of lymphoma are lack of appetite (anorexia), weakness, lethargy, and weight loss.


The exact cause is still unknown.


You will need to give your veterinarian a thorough history of your dog’s health and onset of symptoms. The history and details you provide may give your veterinarian clues as to which organs are being primarily affected. Knowing the starting point can make diagnosis that much easier to pinpoint. Once the initial history has been taken, your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination on your dog. Routine laboratory testing includes a complete blood count, biochemistry profile, and urinalysis.

The blood tests may reveal anemia, abnormally low levels of lymphocytes in the blood (lymphopenia), an abnormally high number of neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) in the blood (neutrophilia), an abnormally high number of monocyts (a type of white blood cell) in the blood, and abnormally low numbers of platelets (cells that are important in blood clotting), a condition called thrombocytopenia. The biochemistry profile may show abnormally high levels of liver enzymes and calcium, a common finding with lymphomas. Urinalysis results are usually found to be at normal levels in these patients.

More specific testing may be required for a confirmatory diagnosis. Diagnostic imaging, including X-rays and ultrasound, are often used to evaluate the size of regional lymph nodes. Your veterinarian will take bone marrow samples to be sent to a veterinary pathologist for further evaluation and to determine the extent of disease.

radiation therapy

A treatment of certain neoplasms that is administered using an x ray


An in-depth examination of the properties of urine; used to determine the presence or absence of illness


Anything pertaining to an organ


A decreased number of lymphocytic leukocytes in an animal’s blood system


A type of leukocyte in the body


The condition of being drowsy, listless, or weak

lymph nodes

Small structures that filter out the lymph and store lymphocytes


A condition of the blood in which normal red blood cell counts or hemoglobin are lacking.


A term for a type of neoplasm that is made up of lymphoid tissue; these masses are usually malignant in nature

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Dementia (Geriatric) in Dogs

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome  in Dogs

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome is a condition related to the aging of a dog’s brain, which ultimately leads to changes in awareness, deficits in learning and memory, and decreased responsiveness to stimuli. Although the initial symptoms of the disorder are mild, they gradually worsen over time, also known as “cognitive decline.” In fact, clinical signs of cognitive dysfunction syndrome are found in 50 percent of dogs over the age of 11, and by the age of 15, 68 percent of dogs display at least one sign.

Symptoms and Types

  • Disorientation/confusion
  • Anxiety/restlessness
  • Extreme irritability
  • Decreased desire to play
  • Excessive licking
  • Seeming disregard for previously learned training or house rules
  • Slow to learn new tasks
  • Inability to follow familiar routes
  • Lack of self-grooming
  • Fecal and urinary incontinence
  • Loss of appetite (anorexia)
  • Changes in sleep cycle (i.e, night waking, sleeping during the day)


Although the exact cause of cognitive dysfunction syndrome is currently unknown, genetic factors may predispose an animal to develop the condition.


You will need to give a thorough history of your dog’s health to your veterinarian, including the onset and nature of the symptoms and possible incidents that might have precipitated the unusual behaviors or complications. He or she will then perform a complete physical examination to evaluate the overall health status and cognitive functions of the dog. Routine blood tests, ultrasounds, and X-rays are also employed to rule out other diseases that may lead to behavioral changes associated with cognitive dysfunction syndrome.

urinary incontinence

A medical condition; implies that the patient is unable to control their urination.


An element found in trace amounts in soil; closely related to sulfur

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Exercise for Your Senior Dog

By Jessica Remitz

As your dog heads into his senior years, he may not be able to run as fast, jump as high or have the stamina he once had. Whether they’re perfectly healthy or experiencing limited mobility as the result of a condition, it’s important for owners to understand their dog’s limits and create an exercise routine that all parties will enjoy.

Conditions That Limit Mobility for Senior Dogs

“The most chronic issue seen in dogs that limits their mobility and exercise level is osteoarthritis,” said Dr. Heidi Lobprise, DVM, DAVDC and spokesperson for the International Veterinary Senior Care Society. This degeneration of the joints due to long-term stress or use can happen naturally or become an issue with overweight pets. Congenital issues like hip dysplasia, which breeds like German Shepherds are predisposed to, and elbow dysplasia, which breeds like Labrador Retrievers are predisposed to, can be mild when a dog is young but worsen over time, Dr. Lobprise said. Rheumatoid arthritis or infections like Lyme disease can also limit mobility without proper care and early diagnosis.

“Senior dogs may also be limited in mobility because of injuries like slipping on something, sliding into something or turning too quickly as they chase after a toy,” said Sue Berryhill, BS, RVT, VTS (Dentistry) and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Assistant. “These seemingly minor slips and slides can cause anterior or posterior cruciate tears and be very painful to your dog. They usually occur when a dog’s weight is higher than their ideal body weight,” Berryhill said.

“A decrease in your dog’s exercise tolerance can also be due to decreased heart function, with valve and heart diseases limiting your pet’s mobility,” Dr. Lobprise said. Valve disease is prevalent in smaller breeds like the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel while muscle diseases like cardiomyopathy are prevalent in larger breeds like the Doberman Pinscher. If you notice your dog getting winded more easily or not walking as well as it used to, Dr. Lobprise advocates bringing them to your vet for a heart checkup.

Types of Indoor Exercise for Senior Dogs

Providing an environment full of both physical and mental stimulation will help keep your dog feeling youthful and active. How do you accomplish this? Dr. Lobprise recommends bringing home a few treat toys that will dispense their meals in smaller doses to improve both physical and mental function and promote weight loss in heavier pets. If they’re able to go up and down the stars, have them move around your home and go up and down stairs slowly to keep their joints moving and muscles loose. Should climbing stairs be out of the picture, invest in some ramps to help your dog keep moving around the house without causing them too much pain.

Types of Outdoor Exercise for Senior Dogs

As a senior your dog should still be getting regular walks throughout the week, but keep them short and try not to overdo it if your pet is experiencing any kind of condition. Dr. Lobprise recommends talking with your vet to make sure you know how much your pet is capable of and what a comfortable distance will be for them to walk each day. Swimming is another excellent activity to help exercise the muscles without hurting joints. According to Dr. Loprise, swimming is also an excellent part of a therapy routine for dogs that have some sort of injury.

Dogs with physical limitations may want to keep moving, running after balls and jumping for Frisbees as they used to, but likely don’t have the stamina. “Limit non-stop games of fetch, swimming for long periods and walking in deep grass or sand for too long — these activities, while fun, will be very fatiguing after extended periods of time,” Berryhill said. You’ll also want to recognize your senior dog’s sensitivity to temperatures both hot and cold. Keep them hydrated and in the shade in the heat, especially if they’re overweight or are a brachycephalic breed like Bulldogs or Pugs.

Keeping Senior Dogs Healthy

Weight management and overall care of your senior dog is extremely important. Make sure they’re properly groomed — with trimmed nails — and at an ideal body weight to be able to move around comfortably. According to Dr. Lobprise, providing dogs who have mild or moderate pain with comfortable bedding will also help their symptoms when they are sleeping or wake up from a nap.

Talk to your vet about orthopedic exams, X-rays (if necessary) and any prescription medication or supplements they recommend for your specific pet to help keep them active and healthy. If your dog has had an injury or is experiencing a chronic illness, Berryhill suggests contacting the American Association of Rehabilitation Veterinarians. They can help you design a rehabilitation program for your dog that may include exercise, acupuncture, cryotherapy or chiropractic appointments. Early detection is key to keeping up an exercise program.

“If you can recognize changes [in your dog] early, you can manage it from an early stage to help make it better quickly,” Dr. Lobprise said. “Always talk to your vet about any treatments that they need — if you catch it before it’s too severe, you can really help your pets out.”

Image: 9919765621 / via Shutterstock