Idiopathic Vestibular Disease in Dogs: Phoenix’s Story

A few things are as scary as watching your dog unable to walk or even stand.

Some terrible conditions can be behind your dog ending up in such a sorry state. One potential reason looks just as horrifying but not dangerous to your dog–vestibular disease.

Ataxia caused by idiopathic vestibular disease is due to a disturbance in the balance center. But, of course, jumping to a conclusion is no good–work with your veterinarian.

Thank you, Brook, for sharing Phoenix’s story.

Idiopathic Vestibular Disease in Dogs: Phoenix's Story

Phoenix’s story

Imagine coming home from a weekend away, excited to return to your faithful companion.  Eager to get back into the dance of life.

Your husband parks the truck and goes inside to turn on the outside lights. As you collect your things and get out of the truck…you see your husband coming out the door carrying something. You ask where your best friend is, and he hesitates before answering.

On November 28th, my husband and I packed two of our four dogs into the truck and our suitcases.

We visited some friends and left our other two dogs home with my stepdad.  We went alone because they got a new puppy, and Phoenix no longer enjoyed puppies in his old age.

On December 1st, my stepdad was sitting on the couch in the living room watching television. He heard Phoenix coming out of our bedroom, so he looked up to see if he wanted anything.

Phoenix gets unwell

Phoenix Showing Off His new Head Tilt

Dear Phoenix stood in the doorway of our bedroom for a moment. He trembled a bit and then abruptly fell over onto his right side. 

My stepdad rushed and tried to help him back onto his feet, But Phoenix couldn’t support himself.

We do not have a landline at our house, and my stepdad doesn’t have a cell phone or vehicle. So he did his best, knowing we would be home the following day. He carried Phoenix out to relieve himself every couple of hours. Helped him eat his meals and drink water.

He made sure he was comfortable. And watched him constantly, worried he would not be alive when I arrived home.

A long night

When we arrived home, Phoenix was in a terrible state.

He couldn’t hold his head up. His eyes were twitching and moving side to side. He was drooling non-stop.  His nose was running like a tap.  But the moment he saw me, he began wagging his tail and whining because he couldn’t get to me.

It was about 6:00 pm when we arrived home. We knew we had to get Phoenix to the vet. However, we also knew that we’d get there by 3:00 am. So we decided it was best to have him sleep on the bed in between us and start the drive in the morning.

It was a long night.  

Both my husband and I were convinced it wouldn’t be good news. We thought Phonex had had a stroke. We knew we had to do whatever Dr. Bianca felt was best. And we promised Phoenix that we would do right by him. But deep down, we this would be the last night we ever had him nearby.

On the way to the hospital

In the morning, we all piled into our truck and began the seven-hour drive to Guelph.

Phoenix On Our Bed

It was the longest and saddest drive of my entire life. We had Phoenix lying on a blanket in the backseat between my husband and me to keep him comfortable. I think I cried about every twenty minutes. Phoenix had been my dog guide for seven years, retiring in May 2005. We had done so many things together. He went to high school and university with me. And was by my side during my mom’s funeral and later my grandmother’s. I couldn’t imagine a life without my faithful friend.

We arrived in Gu around 5:00 pm.

My husband carried Phoenix into Dr. Bianca’s office, and she had him place him on an examination table.  We told her all of his symptoms, and then she looked him over.

She then looked up, we got the best news in the world.

The diagnosis

Dr. Bianca told us that it is rare for dogs to have a stroke. What Phoenix had was called idiopathic vestibular disease or geriatric vestibular syndrome. She explained that it is similar to vertigo in humans. It comes on suddenly, so there was nothing we could have done.

She gave Phoenix a homeopathic remedy and explained what we needed to do to help with Phoenix’s recovery. She said that within seventy-two hours, we should notice a drastic improvement – she was right!

Vestibular disease affects the ability of the brain to recognize abnormal body positions. Further, it also affects the brain’s ability to correct these abnormalities.

There are two types of vestibular disease:

  • central (to an abnormality within the brain)
  • and peripheral (due to an abnormality within the nerves of the inner ear)

Most cases of vestibular disease are peripheral, and no known cause is determined.

The symptoms can be very drastic and frightening to the owner.


Phoenix improves

Within 24 hours, Phoenix’s eyes were no longer twitching, and he seemed to be able to follow our movements throughout the living room).

By Christmas, Phoenix began trying to bear weight and was no longer drooling excessively.

By Christmas, Phoenix was back to his old self, except for a slight head tilt.

I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to be home with Phoenix and help him with his rehabilitation.  Dr. Bianca said that some people had. However, put their dogs to sleep because they could not provide one-on-one assistance. I couldn’t imagine making such a decision. I was thankful for the reassurance that Phoenix would recover if I was willing to put in the effort.

Even though Phoenix only lived eight more months after the event, he never had a recurrence. He was almost 15 when he passed. The changes we made after our visit with Dr. Bianca kept him with us a little bit longer.

What caused Phoenix’s trouble

How idiopathic (of unknown cause) was Phoenix’s vestibular disease really? That is a question to ponder.

Phoenix dealt with a lifetime of ear infections. We tried everything to help him shake them (antibiotics. But it wasn’t until we considered a food allergy that the problem became clear. Our vet then suggested a hypoallergenic food and then slowly reintroduced things into Phoenix’s diet.

We had Phoenix eat Waltham’s Hypoallergenic food for twelve weeks, and his ears began to clear up.

After a year of adding one thing at a time, we determined that Phoenix was allergic to gluten. We moved him off the vet-prescribed food and onto a less expensive gluten-free kibble. With this dietary change and the help of antihistamines during the summer months, Phoenix enjoyed almost five years of infection-free life.

Around thirteen years of age, though, Phoenix began to experience frequent ear infections again.

Neither the elimination diet nor antibiotics were helping this time. Then, in the middle of November that year, Phoenix developed a hematoma, and we were back to the drawing board.

About two weeks later, Phoenix’s acute onset of idiopathic vestibular disease occurred. Through discussions with Dr. Bianca, we concluded that the IVD and year-long ear problems were indeed related.

Related articles:
Phoenix’s Chronic Ear Infections
Drunken Gait/Ataxia in Dogs: Why Is My Dog Stumbling Around?

Further reading:
Vestibular Disease in Dogs

Categories: ConditionsLoss of balanceVestibular disease

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Jana Rade

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience.

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