Vestibular Disease in Dogs – Why Is My Dog Acting Drunk? – Old Dog Syndrome

It was one crazy day when my 11 year old lab, Ellie Mae, began showing some strange behavior in the back yard.

I spotted her wandering around in circles...with her head tilted…. acting like a drunken sailor on shore leave.  This was my first experience with Vestibular Disease in dogs.  Also know as old dog syndrome, its a relatively common condition in senior pooches.

This episode came suddenly and it was scary and disturbing.  Our poor girl was staggering around… stumbling… and falling over…..  Unable to get her balance.

Like a champ – she would get back up with her head tilted, take a few steps in a not-so-straight line.  And then fall over again.

A quick trip to the vet gave us more details…she was diagnosed with Idiopathic Vestibular Syndrome (Disease).

This is a condition that occurs from irritation of the nerves in the dogs inner ear… which connect to the brain.

You know, the place in our head that lets us jump, run, and walk up some stairs.  It’s what we need to keep active.

Old Dog Syndrome – Idiopathic Vestibular Disease

Vestibular disease can show up in older dogs due to advanced age…. but the syndrome can also afflict dogs with chronic inner ear infections… stroke… head trauma… tumors… thyroid conditions… and some medications.

The disease can actually be present at birth and lie dormant until it’s triggered into action by one of the physical traumas mentioned.

Veterinary doctors are searching for a vestibular syndrome cure but they still have not truly identified the main cause for the disease in elderly dogs. Meaning, you are kind of in uncharted territory, but you can handle it.

It’s very common in elderly dogs and your veterinarian has seen this a lot. 

Symptoms and Signs

In general, vestibular syndrome “refers to a sudden, non-progressive disturbance in balance”. This loss of balance is caused by the pressure in the inner and middle ear which gives the dogs symptoms of dizziness and vertigo.

The dogs inner sensory receptors are all crossed and the room starts spinning for them.

Dog Vestibular Syndrome RestingSeeing your dog suffering from this disease looks really awful: I mean, it’s really bad!

How it shows up out-of-the-blue is extremely shocking. 

Loss of coordination, drooling, vomiting from dizziness, staggering, head tilting….and rapid jerking eye movements from side to side... are the most common signs of the disease.

In elderly dogs many of these symptoms are mistaken for stroke.

In severe cases the disease can make eating, drinking, and getting outside for waste elimination extremely difficult.  Advanced disease symptoms could mean your dog needs supportive care such as confinement and nursing care.

In addition to the effects of the disease, many geriatric dogs can become stressed by the onset of these symptoms.

Supplement nutrition can help with both calming the stress factors and relieving some physical effects of the disease. This has been extremely effective in the treatment of our dog, Ellie Mae.


A trip to your vets office is in order here folks, especially if your dog can’t walk. My vet mentioned that this is not a painful condition; thank goodness as it looks very intense.Vestibular Disease Exam

In older dogs it’s quite common that eating and drinking probably won’t happen on their own during the initial 2-3 day onslaught of the disease.

For this reason IV treatment may be recommended by your dog’s vet. The doctor will check both inner ear canals and recommend blood work to insure the internal organs are working properly.

Ask lots of questions.

Your dog’s vet may recommend other forms of testing which can be expensive.

Don’t be a afraid to ask about a wait-and-see approach. If your dog is comfortable and is able to somewhat get around with help from you it’s not unreasonable to hold off on other “treatments”.

Typically, elderly dogs with the disease slowly improve over time. However, my dog Ellie Mae, still walks with a head tilt and usually can’t walk a straight line. She can eat, drink, navigate a few stairs, and potty outside by herself.

I decided to make my own healthy dog for Ellie Mae.  It’s easier for her to eat and a much healthier balanced meal. Nutritious and fresh home made dog food is fairly simple but if you can’t do that here’s another option.

Doctors say that the head tilt is a result of the disease in  being more severe in one ear more than the other…. which also explains the drift in their gait. They literally can walk in circles.

Treatment of Vestibular Disease in Dogs – There’s No Cure….But!

Some initial symptoms such as vomiting and dizziness can be treated with doggy motion sickness meds. We gave our dog those for only a day or so until those symptoms became less severe.

Unfortunately there is no typical long term treatment for geriatric dogs with this disease, since doctors really don’t know the root cause.

You’ll need to focus on your pets safety, comfort, and nutrition and just ride it out.

Proper nutrition is KEY –  I make my own healthy dog food most of the time.   I find it to be fairly easy and I know it’s fresh and good for my dog.  Whether you make you own food or feed him a commercial mix you will need a well-balanced food to give him the nutrition to recover and thrive.

Also, while your dog is recovery from the early stages of this condition you will want to limit your dogs activity.  I suggest getting some baby gates to keep your dog out of potentially hazardous situations (tripping and falling down stairs, etc.).

The last thing your dog needs at this stage is a broken hip or torn ACL from an accident due to her loss of balance.

Keep them out of harms way…. trim their nails to help keep them from slipping…. supervise them at all times.

Keep your dog comfy. Their lack of balance means they may not sleep, drink, eat, or walk normally. We needed to put Ellie Mae’s food and water slightly higher off the floor because bending her head down too far would trigger her dizziness.

I sincerely hope that you never have to endure the sight of your elderly dog struggle with this horrible disease. From what I’ve discovered doing this research though, it is far to common.

If you have elderly dogs this may be something you’ll have to deal with one day…but now you are prepared. Somewhat anyway.

It’s gonna get better – you guys can lick this!

If you have a senior dog, this crazy canine affliction may one day pop into your life. It’s a sneaky disease and it hits hard and fast. Knowing that your dog isn’t in pain while this happening is Old Dog Copinga relief though. So that part is something you won’t have to stress about.

Flair ups of vestibular disease can recur after some initial improvement and it can be months or longer before they revisit (or never!). Overall signs could stay the same or they can improve or get worse over time.

I hope this has helped shed some light on this dizzying doggy disease. If you have any comments just leave them below.

Thanks for reading!

13 Comments on “Vestibular Disease in Dogs – Why Is My Dog Acting Drunk? – Old Dog Syndrome”

  1. Hi Tim, I really like your site, and your concept on helping owners with older dogs. What a wonderful idea! I also enjoyed the read on the dizzy disease, and what can be done about it. Keep the great quality articles coming!! Thanks

    1. Hi Terry, it’s a truly helpless feeling when your pet goes through something like this. Since they can’t tell you what’s wrong it can lead to guesswork. Thanks for checking out the article. Cheers!

  2. Great post. I learned quite a bit of information about the vestibular diseases. I will have to keep an eye out for these signs in my dog!

  3. I am not really a pet’s lover, but I like dogs for dog are known for man’s best friend and that is true in did. Vestibular disease is totally a new thing that I learn. Sometimes we may find our pet not feeling well and we wouldn’t know what going on. By reading through your article gives clear symptoms we can try to figure out to provide best cure. Great article!

  4. Hi Tim,

    This was an interesting post. I don’t know much about diseases in animals and I’m wondering whether this is the same as Meniere’s disease in humans.

    It’s a pity that there’s no cure for this and all you can do is wait it out, make your dog more comfortable, and provide symptomatic relief.

    1. All of these conditions are related…vestibular syndrome, vertigo, and Meniere’s.  These all are based on inner ear and nerve imbalances and considered Vestibular Disorders.  They affect humans and dogs…although we have different internal ear/brain structures

  5. Vestibular disease is a nightmare for a dog.I cannot see my energetic dog like this ever. As you said here proper nutrition and regular check up can keep our dogs healthy. Though age related issues is very common to anyone we still have to get proper care. My dog is only 2 years old male Labrador but I am always concern about his health.Is there any kind of vaccine or medicine that can keep my Doggy away from diseases like this?

    1. This hits older dogs mainly unless a younger dog has some type of head trauma.   A healthy well-balanced diet and regular ear checkup and cleaning helps keep infections away which can lead to inner ear issues.

      I also found in my research that giving a dog too much raw meat at once can at times trigger this condition.  But I can’t verify this.  Vets don’t know the real cause so it’s tough to prevent.  Anytime we can keep our dogs vibrant with a strong immune system we can ward off much of this.  This one seems to be one of those random things that can pop up though.

  6. Hello.Thank you for this article on the vestibular disease. Our dog is not that old yet but the dog of a friend of mine just started to go through this. It is really scary to watch.

    I have a question: Is there a way to prevent this from happening in anyway? By taking extra care of the dog before he even gets old?Maybe with a healthy nutrition? You recommended using a healthy nutrition after the dog is showing the symptoms.But maybe we can prevent this from happening when we make sure he eats healthy already at a young age?

    Just some thoughts I had while reading your article.I would love to hear your thoughts on this!Thanks again!I hope your dog is doing fine!Moritz

    1. Great questions and thank you for visiting and reading the article. 

      I do believe we can reduce the risk of this condition by keeping our dogs on a well-balance diet.  It’s also important to keep your dogs ears clean and free from infections.  Your vet does a check on this at checkup time…but keeping your dogs ears clean (and dried out after swimming, etc) help to keep chance of infections low which can start those inner ear issues.

  7. I hope the vet doctors come up with a solution to this Vestibular Disease soon for our four legged friends. I’m guessing CBD oil doesn’t do anything for Vestibular Disease in the older dogs.

    I guess it’s good to know the disease kind of goes away after awhile, but can recur. Dogs are so much fun until you have to deal with these old age costly problems – kinda the same goes for us humans.

    I hope your dog, Ellie Mae, recovers and doesn’t suffer too much from the disease.

    1. Thanks Alexander….Ellie Mae is hanging in there!  This disease truly looks far worse than it is.  It’s not a true killer like cancer or heartworms but is highly disturbing.  Vet’s really don’t know what causes it so it’s tough to put a prevention plan in place.   I’ve seen in my research that feeding your dog “raw” meat can sometimes be one of the  triggers for it in older dogs.

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