I jolt awake in the middle of the night to the sound of one of my three dogs throwing up. My first thought is, glad the floors are concrete and easy to clean. The moon provides enough light for me to make my way to the kitchen, where I see Meadow, my 10-year-old Alaskan Malamute, standing with her head slightly lowered, a small pool of yellow vomit on the floor in front of her. Her front legs are splayed wide.
“Oh, Meadow girl, I’m sorry you’re sick …” I murmur as I approach. Before I can reach her, she stumbles and falls hard to the floor, then struggles to stand up. Stumbling like a drunk, she slams to the floor again. What the hell’s going on?
Meadow, who weighs more than 90 pounds, continues trying to stand. I hold onto her collar, using my other hand to steady her. When she falls, she crashes into my legs with all her weight, almost taking me with her. Not wanting to hear that heart-wrenching thud again, I use my body to prevent her from standing. She moves awkwardly, head swaying, fighting my downward pressure.
She finally stops struggling, but is clearly distressed. Her front legs are spread out in front of her, her chest is barely on the floor and all her weight is on her elbows. One of her hind legs is pinned under her hips, the other one extended out to the side. She pants fast and heavily. She can’t possibly be comfortable, but hasn’t let out any cries of pain and resists my attempts to rearrange her legs.
I turn on an overhead light, then lift her face toward mine. I’m confronted with one of the most frightening sights I’ve ever encountered: Meadow’s eyes are darting rapidly from side to side, as though every neuron in her brain is on fire. Almost crying in fear and frustration, I’m completely stymied.
I’m also alone in a house without cell phone reception. Just me and my dogs. The nearest ER vet clinic is three hours away, but I can’t get Meadow into the car without help. “Meadow, look at me.” I sense that she’s trying to focus, that she hears me, but she can’t make her eyes stop moving. “Meadow, you cannot leave me, not now, not here,” I say to her, trying to quell my own fear that she’s dying and there’s nothing I can do prevent it. I have to do something.
Telling Meadow to stay, I quickly dress and drive the quarter-mile to my closest neighbor’s house. Amazingly, despite the hour, they get their vet on the phone. After hearing the pertinent details, the vet makes an instant diagnosis: “She’s having a seizure. It might be the only one she ever has, or she might have more. She may have brain damage, or she may not.” Brain damage? Not good, although at least I can stop worrying that she’ll die tonight. But the eye thing, her inability to stand; it was going on a good 15 minutes before I left to come here, I argue mentally, thinking a seizure should be a quick thing, like the one I’d witnessed in a friend’s dog with epilepsy. “Seizures can last anywhere from a minute to a couple of hours,” the vet informs me, as if reading my mind. “Should I bring her to you tonight?” I ask. “No,” he replies, “there’s nothing to be done. Just watch her so she doesn’t fall down and hurt herself.”
When I get home, Meadow hasn’t moved, and is still exhibiting the same symptoms. I make a bed next to her on the floor and watch, and wait. As the night wears on, Meadow’s eyes finally quit darting, and eventually—around 5 am—she puts her head on the floor and sleeps on her side. I lay with her, stroking her fur, still trying to figure out what’s happening. It just doesn’t fit my idea of a seizure. Then suddenly, I remember: three years earlier, I’d had a sudden case of extreme dizziness, and my own eyes had danced uncontrollably, just like Meadow’s. I had awoken one morning to a world spinning out of control, unable to stand without falling or slamming into walls. Even rolling over in bed made the world heave and lurch. An ER doctor diagnosed vertigo, likely the result of a severe head cold that had affected my inner ear. A drug resolved my symptoms within 20 minutes, although I had to keep taking it for a week.
Can dogs get vertigo? I wonder as I lay there, stroking Meadow’s body. As it turns out, the answer is yes. In dogs, it’s called vestibular disease. Just about any creature with ears and a brain stem can suffer from vestibular disorders.