The dog's vestibular system tells him where his body is, helps him with balance, and coordinates his head and eye movements. The receptors for the vestibular system are in the inner ear; the information they collect is processed by the brainstem and the cerebellum. Vestibular disease is any abnormality of that system. Geriatric Vestibular Syndrome is a common form of vestibular disease in older dogs, of unknown cause. It's not a life threatening disease.
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Geriatric Vestibular Syndrome (GVS), or Canine Idiopathic Vestibular Syndrome, most typically affects older dogs, those in the 8 plus age range, although middle aged dogs can be affected. It's more common in medium to large dogs. Susan M. Cochrane, of 5 Minute Consults, suggests that changes in the flow, production or absorption of fluid in the semicircular canal, or anything that could cause the nerves in the inner ear to be inflamed might contribute to the onset of GVS.
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Dogs with GVS will present with a sudden loss of balance, sometimes falling over to one side, or an inability to stand. They'll have a head tilt, usually to the affected side, and they'll demonstrate rapid sideways eye movements (known as nystagmus). Most of these dogs won't be able to eat, or drink without help, or won't want to because they're nauseous. GVS is often confused with a stroke or a seizure.
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Diagnosis is largely based on clinical signs and the history that the owner gives to the veterinarian. Sometimes diagnostic tests like blood chemistry and complete blood count, radiographs, or magnetic resonance imaging will be done to rule out other more serious causes.
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Treatment for Geriatric Vestibular Disease is primarily supportive. In a severe episode, the dog may need to be hospitalised, placed on intravenous fluids, and given drugs to control vomiting. Steroids or other anti-inflammatory drugs may be used. If an ear infection is suspected, the dog may be put on antibiotics. In a less severe case, the animal may be able to be treated at home. The owner may need to help the dog get up periodically, and go out, and may need to hand feed and water the dog.
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According to Dr. WB Thomas, neurologist at the University of Tennessee, the prognosis for dogs with Geriatric Vestibular disease is very good, often without treatment in mild cases. Clinical signs like loss of balance and rapid eye movements begin to improve within 72 hours. Vomiting stops and appetite returns. The head tilt can be slower to improve, with some dogs having a slight tilt the rest of their life. Most vestibular dogs are back to normal within two to three weeks. Sometimes, under stress, dogs will have a mild recurrence, but repeated episodes are really unusual. If the dog doesn't recover, or continues to have episodes, your veterinarian will recommend further diagnostics.