For the last few months, my oldest Golden Retriever hasn’t really been himself.  He will be 13 in July and has Cushing’s Syndrome, diagnosed at 9, along with arthritis.  I put his slowing down more to age and pain from the arthritis than anything else.  He was sleeping a lot more and didn’t seem to want to walk more than a few feet at a time.  His appetite was okay, but not the best.  I noticed he would lose his balance in the back end on occasion but again, over the years and with age he has lost a lot of muscle mass. 

About two weeks ago I decided perhaps he needed more help in the “pain” area and off we went to consult with his vet.  He had been on the natural pain relief Dog Gone Pain.  We did a full blood panel which came back okay.  Due to the Cushing’s, a couple of the tests were on the high side but nothing totally out of whack. The vet and I discussed the various pain medications and the side effects and decided to try him on Deramaxx.  No medication is foolproof or without side effects and the vet assured me she had not had any patients react adversely to it.   He was also put on an antibiotic for gingivitis.  We went home hoping for the best.  This was on a Monday.  Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday went off without a hitch.  He seemed to be tolerating the Deramaxx and antibiotic just fine.  No vomiting or upset stomach.  His appetite picked up.  On Friday morning, when I took him out to potty he decided we needed to go for a walk.  Off we went down the drive, down the street.  Things were looking up.

            I came home at Noon for lunch and fed Boomer his lunch which he ate quite happily.  I ate my lunch and then invited him to go for a quick walk (potty break) which he agreed to.  We walked through the yard, he did his business and went back up onto the front porch.  It was shortly thereafter that “all hell broke loose!”

            Once up on the porch, as Boomer turned toward me, his entire body started weaving and swaying.  He could not stand up.  It was as if he was drunk!  Really drunk!  I ran to him, tried to steady him, and somehow I flung the front door open, and got him into the house where he then finally did topple over.  Soon after, the vomiting started and went on for what seemed like an eternity.  His eyes were bouncing around in his head, back and forth…back and forth.   Of course, I was home alone and panicking like none other!  Yet, I knew I needed to get my wits about me to help him.  I cleaned up the mess, ran upstairs got his lamb’s wool bed and called my daughter and asked her to please come home and help me.  I called the vet, gave them a brief description of what was going on and told them I was on my way. 

            Upon arriving at the vet’s office, Boomer was carried in on a stretcher.  That is a sight I will never forget.  The vet took his vitals, drew blood, and proceeded with the exam.  His blood work looked okay, nothing more out of the ordinary than usual given the Cushing’s Syndrome he has endured since age 9.  However, his eyes were still moving rapidly back and forth and it was clear that he could not and did not want to stand up or move.  He again vomited.  Long story short, he was diagnosed with Vestibular Syndrome.  He was kept at the vet’s office for the afternoon for observation and discharged at 5:00 p.m.  The vet knows me very well and knows he would receive only the very best care at home too; thus, the discharge. 

            During the past week, I have educated myself on Vestibular Syndrome and will share with you, that which I have learned thus far.  The “syndrome” can manifest itself in various ways.  Peripheral vestibular syndrome, geriatric vestibular syndrome and idiopathic vestibular syndrome.  In laymen’s terms it is “vertigo.”  The dog is dizzy!  It is more common in older dogs but can occur in middle aged dogs too.  That is why it is more commonly referred to as “idiopathic” as opposed to “geriatric.”  Idiopathic means it “happens for no known cause.”  However, the preferred name is “peripheral” vestibular syndrome due to the rapid eye movement that is often seen.  Research shows it comes on quickly without warning and it is believed to be caused by an inflammation in the nerves connecting the inner ear to the cerebellum.  The cerebellum controls balance and spatial orientation. 

            Vestibular Syndrome usually lasts between a couple days and three weeks.  Residual side effects may include a head-tilt.  Most dogs seem normal up until the signs appear.  In thinking back on Boomer’s behavior, I am of the belief that he was experiencing a mild form of it prior to being hit “head-on.”

            Symptoms include a sudden loss of balance, with many dogs unable to even stand up.  Rhythmic eye motion known as “nystagmus” is most often present.  Vomiting may occur due to the “sea sickness” effect of the disease.  In the early stages, most dogs will not eat or drink and will have to be hand fed.  This is due to the fine motor movements necessary to eat or drink from a bowl.  The drug therapy for Vestibular Syndrome is TLC (Tender Loving Care).  Most dogs will recover. Relapses can occur but rarely do.  It is my understanding via research that vets do sometimes prescribe antibiotics if there is any evidence of an ear infection. 

            Peripheral vestibular syndrome might be confused with other diseases that cause cerebellar damage or inner ear disease.  Inner ear infections are probably the most common cause of similar symptoms and should recovery not progress, it may be a good idea to do more testing to rule out an inner ear problem.  Also, cancer affecting the cerebellum and the peripheral nerves to the cerebellum or inner ear can also cause similar symptoms and signs.  Additionally, a trauma might possible cause and be confused with peripheral vestibular syndrome IF brain damage has occurred. 

            Granulometous meningoencephalitis (GME) which involves blood clots leading to lack of circulations in part of the brain might also mimic vestibular syndrome in dogs.  If the damage to the brain is slight, then recovery may occur quickly.  If damage is severe, there may not be any improvement or recovery.  The good news on this is that in dogs, the incidence of GME in dogs is low. 

            When dogs do not fully recover from peripheral vestibular syndrome, they can however normally have good lives.  They will learn to adjust to the residual problems, such as head tilts and generally do not seem all that bothered by them.  If after a period of three weeks, progress towards recovery is not seen, you should absolutely consider other disorders mentioned above.

            After a week from the initial diagnosis, I am happy to report that Boomer is doing well.  He continues to improve daily.  He is now eating on his own, and while he still needs assistance going up and down the stairs of our deck to reach his potty area, he is getting more stable on his feet each day.  He has graduated from wearing a “harness” to just a collar to help me guide him.  He took a walk with me in the yard yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed himself!  Once again, life at our house is GOOD!  We still have a long road ahead of us, but thankfully this was just a “bump” in the road and not the end of the journey! 

            As always, comments welcome.  In fact, I would LOVE to hear from anyone whose dog has gone through Vestibular Syndrome and the recovery phase!  I can be reached at:

            Happy Spring!  Hugs your dogs! 

 Return to the Current Medical Article