At nearly fifteen years of age, Timmy has been beginning to slow down. He used to be an energetic creature, loving to go on walks at any opportunity. These days, he prefers a quieter life. If he’s taken for a walk, he dawdles along at a gentle pace. He makes it clear that he’d prefer to be back at home, taking it easy.
He has a set daily routine, getting up with the family at 7.30am every day. He has his breakfast with everyone else, but instead of going for a brisk walk like in the old days, he hops into the car to be driven around the school run. He enjoys the change of scenery, and the social aspect of being out with everyone, but he has no inclination to do anything more energetic. As soon as he returns, he gets back onto his couch to snooze. Often, he scarcely budges from the couch for the rest of the day. If Tom and his friends are playing football, Timmy forgets his age in his enthusiasm to join in, and if Tom’s mother is gardening, Timmy still enjoys going out with her. Otherwise, his outdoor activity is down to a minimum.
Timmy is still strongly motivated by food. One day last week, he was woken from his resting place on the couch by Tom’s father preparing food for lunch. Timmy jumped off the couch, but instead of landing properly, he tumbled over onto his left shoulder. He tried to stand up, but he kept falling onto his side, unable to stand up properly. Poor Timmy became confused, and he turned around, trying to get back up onto the couch, but he couldn’t do it. He’d lost his balance completely, and couldn’t do anything other than lie in one spot, panting.
Timmy was brought down to my clinic that afternoon, and when I examined him, he was still unable to stand up and walk properly. He was holding his head tilted to the left, and when I looked into his eyes with a bright light, I could see that they were flicking rapidly from side to side. He was showing typical signs of a problem that’s common in older dogs: an upset of the balance system in the middle ear, known as “vestibulitis”.
This condition used to be known as a “stroke”, but in fact, the brain itself is completely unaffected. Techniques such as MRI scans have allowed a much better understanding of what’s going on inside the skull. The delicate system of sensors and nerve connections in the middle ear develops sudden onset inflammation, and stop working properly. The cause is still unknown.
The signs of vestibulitis are so dramatic that many people mistakenly believe that their pet has reached the end of their days. In fact, most dogs go on to make a full recovery. It’s important to visit the vet, because there are other diseases that can look similar, including genuine strokes and brain tumours. Once vestibulitis has been confirmed, it’s generally a case of giving anti-inflammatory medication and plenty of rest. Some dogs need to be fed by hand, because they’re unable to balance well enough to eat on their own. Rarely, the signs are so dramatic that euthanasia does need to be considered, but most animals make a steady recovery over five to seven days
Timmy has done well, and a week after the episode he’s almost back to his normal routine, enjoying the school run and a spot of gardening in the spring sunshine. It’s not a bad life!
- Sudden loss of balance is a common problem in older dogs
- The disease is called “vestibulitis” but many people still incorrectly refer to it as a “stroke”
- Most affected dogs make a good recovery with simple treatment