Geriatric vestibular syndrome
Geriatric vestibular syndrome (GVS) is an uncommon problem, but not rare. It is seen in dogs much more often than cats. It is almost exclusively a condition of older animals. The cause of vestibular disease is often unknown.
The vestibular system involves the inner ear, which controls balance. Signs are related to problems of balance pets will suddenly become unable to walk properly, fall to one side, develop a distinct head tilt, and may have irregular eye movements. Some dogs are quite nauseated (the sensation is much like riding non-stop on a merry-go-round).
There are other diseases that can cause similar symptoms, such as middle ear infections. Some drugs can damage the vestibular nerve. Trauma to the head may also cause vestibular signs. Your veterinarian may recommend further testing to establish a definitive diagnosis.
Most dogs can be treated at home. Some dogs that are very nauseated definitely benefit from a few days in the hospital on intravenous fluids, to keep them well hydrated if they are vomiting. Anti-nausea drugs often help. If your pet is very disoriented and anxious, mild tranquilizers may help him or her relax. At home, dogs should be kept quiet and comfortable. Good nursing care is required since many dogs have difficulty walking, and need assistance to go outside and relieve themselves. Eating can also be a problem if the dog is having trouble locating the food dish.
The good news is that the physical signs stabilize quickly and usually start to improve within 72 hours. Over the next one to two weeks your dog should be much steadier when walking and the abnormal eye movements and head tilt should start to go away. Most dogs are normal (or very close to it) within two to three weeks after the initial onset of signs. Sometimes there is a minor head tilt that will persist even after the dog seems otherwies normal. Recurrence is rare but not impossible.