Unfortunately, like Meadow, many dogs with vestibular disease are initially misdiagnosed as having seizures. In some instances, unable to afford expensive diagnostics or consult a neurologist, the distressed owners put the dog down, fearing he or she has suffered brain damage and won’t recover, or will suffer repeated seizures in the future. “That’s sad,” says Dr. Sturges. “There’s no reason to put them down. We don’t often see brain damage in dogs. A seriously long seizure could cause damage, but don’t jump to euthanize, even in cases of seizure,” she emphasizes.
Granted, sudden onset of vestibular disease can look like a seizure; the two are often hard to distinguish. “A neurologist could maybe tell the difference,” says Dr. Sturges. “An EEG to measure brain electricity and some other tests could help differentiate. But actually seeing the episode is the best way to diagnose. A video—everyone has cameras and video-cams these days—would be very helpful.”
For those who have never experienced vertigo, let me assure you: it’s sudden, overwhelming and incredibly frightening. You don’t know what’s happening, or why, and your brain seems disconnected from your body. Dogs must experience similar fear. And it can be dangerous, depending on when and where it occurs. Both Meadow and I were lucky; we were safely at home and our falls didn’t cause injury. Growing up in a family of aviators, I remember hearing whispered talk among pilots about vertigo, how deadly it can be during flight; it was the one thing they seemed to fear. Then, I couldn’t understand how simply being dizzy could cause a pilot to lose control of an airplane. Now I do. In fact, vertigo is thought to be the most likely reason the private airplane piloted by John F. Kennedy, Jr., and carrying his wife and sister-in-law crashed into the ocean off Martha’s Vineyard in 1999, killing all three. With vertigo, you literally don’t know up from down. Remember white-knuckle rides on that spinning playground equipment? When you tried to get off, you’d stumble and fall to the ground, head still whirling. That’s vertigo light. The real thing is more intense, longer lasting and much scarier.
Meadow and I eventually fall asleep. Around 7 am, I’m awakened by movement. I open my eyes to see Meadow sitting up. “Meadow! Good girl!” I say excitedly. This is progress; this is huge. “Do you want to go outside?” Before I finish the sentence, Meadow is leaning forward to get her hind legs underneath her. Helping her up, I usher her unsteadily toward the door. Out in the yard, she immediately pees and poops. I’ve never before been so excited about normal bodily functions. We head back into the house, where she goes straight to her normal sleeping spot beside my bed. Her gait is wobbly, but she’s moving under her own power. As she settles down, we both heave a huge sigh of relief.
Within a few days, Meadow’s gait is back to normal. She doesn’t have the lingering head tilt common with vestibular disease, but displayed every other symptom. Follow-up blood work discloses that she’s hypothyroid, a possible cause of vestibular disease.
After the dust settled, I shared my experience with friends. Many had similar stories involving taking their dog to a veterinary emergency clinic. One - a vet - has seen several cases in her clinic. Sharing our stories can help prepare us in the event our dogs – especially our old dogs – suffer a sudden episode, making it less scary. Seek medical treatment when appropriate, but if a diagnosis doesn’t ring true, trust your own observations and get another opinion. You know your dog better than anyone.
An online search of “vestibular disease in dogs” and “nystagmus” brings up YouTube videos of dogs showing classic symptoms such as head tilt, drunken gait (ataxia) and nystagmus. The videos are hard to watch, but being aware of the symptoms of vestibular disease could save you a night of fear and stress, or help you notice warning signs of central vestibular disease, allowing early intervention and an increased likelihood of a good outcome for your dog.