Chloe comforts her friend, Sally

After a lifetime of living with dogs, my wife and I thought we knew nearly everything that could turn into serious issues as they grew old. We thought we could recognize all the signs that the end was near – that awful moment that all pet guardians must face.  But we were wrong.

A recent episode involving one of our dogs – a 13-year-old senior named Sally  – introduced us to a condition we had not heard of. The condition is called Idiopathic Vestibular Disease and it is often termed Old Dog Disease because it occurs most frequently in old timers. It is very scary to witness. It temporarily suspends your dog’s physical agility and normal behavior and makes them appear very ill – and way past your ability to help them. 

When it happened to Sally, we thought – this is it. She cannot recover from this.

Vestibular disease is most common in older dogs

Our vet suspected vestibular disease immediately, reassured us that things might not be as bad as they looked, and advised us on what to do. When we told friends and other dog owners later about our scare, most had not heard of the condition either.  So I thought I would talk about it in this blog in case any of our readers encounter it for the first time. The important thing: don’t panic!

But before I describe what happened to Sally and what we needed to know and do, I want to emphasize that it is essential to consult a vet if the same thing happens to your pet.   

We were told that the vestibular system, located in the inner ear of dogs and humans, just beyond the ear drum, consists of components that govern balance, the ability to stand normally, the position of the head, and eye movement. The symptoms can be caused by different things including tumors, bacterial infection or physical injury. The vet explained that the symptoms could just go away on their own, but blood and other tests were necessary for a full diagnosis in case treatment was required.

Our Sally is what is sometimes called “a shelter special,” a small-to-medium mix of uncertain ancestry with a long body and short legs, one of which has a paw that points west like a ballet dancer at rest. She came to us from Marin Humane as a months-old puppy suffering from separation anxiety but physically strong and lively, and friendly with everyone she met. It was love at first sight – for her and for my wife, Jean, and me.

In recovery

Sally’s bout with vestibular disease came upon her – and us – unexpectedly. We still don’t know what caused it. She was at the front door waiting to be let out for her usual pre-dawn potty. She started tilting her head to the side and staggering around in circles. Then she started urinating on the carpet without control – something she had never done indoors before, not even as a puppy. When we opened the door, she could barely make it to her favorite poop spot and then fell over and vomited. It was alarming to see her in such distress.

I carried her to her downstairs bed in the house and noticed that her eyes were fluttering, a condition the vets call nystagmus. She was shivering in shock. In my ignorance, I feared that the situation was catastrophic and that she was slipping away rapidly. We tried to comfort her, but we really didn’t know what to do.

Normally you would book well in advance to see our vet but they told us to bring Sally in that morning. Jean and I had to brace ourselves to the possibility that we were about to lose our Sal and would not be bringing her home.

Sally loves going in the car but on the ride to the vet her head was on Jean’s lap with her eyes closed. At the clinic, the vet said immediately that it looked like our girl was showing classic symptoms of vestibular disease – the tilted head, the staggering, the falling over, the walking in circles, the fluttering eyes, the confusion. She explained that a dysfunction in the inner ear could make the dog feel nausea, rather like vertigo in people, and it was probably the cause of the puking.

Sally was at the right age for something like that to happen, she pointed out, but it could occur in younger animals too. She did caution that the symptoms could stem from other chronic health conditions.

Until the diagnosis was clear, she added, the treatment would include anti-nausea medication to stop the vomiting and sedatives to help the old lady relax. Nobody mentioned it, but it was clear that a huge dose of TLC was needed too. The tests would show whether further treatment was necessary such as antibiotics and IV fluids. If it was the Old Dog Disease, as she suspected – having dealt with quite a few cases that looked the same – we could expect recovery in a week to a month without further treatment.

What a relief! We carried our ailing girl back to the car where she was greeted enthusiastically with lots of licks and a blurring tail by her pal Chloe – also an MH alumna – who must have wondered why she had to wait in the car and not get her usual fussing over by the vet staff.

Getting back to normal

As it turned out, the vet was correct. Sally did get better, but it took a bit longer than we had hoped for – closer to two months. During that period, she had to be carried up and down the 10 stairs to and from our second-floor bedroom where the dogs sleep too. She tried but could not manage the stairs on her own. At times she had to be held up while peeing outside so that she wouldn’t fall over.

Toting a 42-pound pooch up and down a staircase is not that much of an ordeal most of the time, but it can be a trial when she tells you she needs to pee at midnight near lights out time on a frigid, wintry night.

She is almost back to normal. She doesn’t stagger, her eyes don’t flutter, she is eager to go on her usual hikes, she enjoys wrestling again with Chloe after breakfast and she has started to jump on my bed again at 5:30 am every day to say good morning while sitting on my chest.  I had hoped secretly and with a guilty feeling that she would forget that habit. She still has a head tilt but we think this relates to a vision problem in one eye that was developing long before the vestibular issue came calling.

Soon after my dog-carrying exercises began, I found that I had to do it for both of them. While running furiously on a hike, Chloe tore the cruciate ligament in her left rear leg and started yelping and limping.  A painful problem – but at least we knew what it was and what needed to be done.  Chloe is doing fine now and is expected to make a complete recovery.   

For a while all 30-lbs of her also had to be lugged up and down the stairs. I am thinking of installing in our condo one of those home elevators you see in pictures of fancy houses. Going up! All aboard for the second floor!