Many older dogs develop vertigo – called vestibular syndrome – for no known reason. It can be really scary to watch and difficult to deal with. I have seen many dogs get it and recover. It is always a condition that requires medical evaluation and attention, at an emergency room if your vet is not available. I want to educate you about what it is and help you make good decisions should it happen.
Dogs can get vertigo for no known reason, and it is much more common in old dogs than in young ones. The symptoms often come on suddenly and can include their eyes darting back and forth or up and down, walking in circles, vomiting, and falling down. Frankly, if you have never seen it before, you might think that your dog is having a seizure or dying. It is awful. But it is not usually fatal and dogs do recover.
Vertigo is usually treated with anti-nausea medication and rest. Symptoms sometimes improve in hours or days, but can also go on for weeks. The latter cases are the most difficult because there really isn’t a treatment to stop it (although I would always try acupuncture), and at some point it is not an acceptable way for you or your dog to live. In many instances, however, it resolves and there are no long lasting problems. Many dogs end up with a slight head tilt permanently, but it doesn’t affect their ability to enjoy life. It just is the way they hold their head to see the world right again.
Sometimes the vertigo can be caused by a brain tumor, which is much more serious. In those cases where a brain tumor is suspected, you would be referred to a neurologist or for an MRI to see what is happening in the brain. From there, you would have to make decisions about whether it makes sense to treat the tumor.
I have seen dogs unnecessarily euthanized, especially in ERs, by young vets who seem to assume that vertigo is just too hard for people or an old dog to get through. Sometimes it may be. But because the condition itself is not fatal and often does resolve, it often makes sense to give it some time and give your dog a chance to return to the life she had before. If your dog develops vertigo, take a deep breath, talk to your vet, and consider giving it some time to improve. It is rarely a situation where you must make a life and death decision immediately.