The vestibular apparatus is the neurological equipment responsible for perceiving one’s body’s orientation relative to the earth (determining if you are upside-down, standing up straight, falling etc.) and informing ones eyes and extremities how they should move accordingly. The vestibular apparatus allows us to walk, even run, on very uneven ground without falling, helps us know when we need to right ourselves, and allows our eyes to follow moving objects without becoming dizzy.

There are two sets of receptors involved in the vestibular apparatus: one to detect rotational acceleration (tumbling or turning) and one to detect linear acceleration and gravity (falling and letting us know which direction is up and which is down). Both receptors are located in the middle ear. Tiny neurological hair cells project into special canals of fluid so that when one’s head moves, the fluid moves, and the hair cells wave within the fluid. The hair cells are part of sensory nerve cells, which carry the appropriate message to the cerebellum (part of the brain that coordinates locomotion) and to 4 vestibular nuclei in the brain stem.

From these centers, instructions are carried by nerve cells to the legs and neck muscles, and eye muscles so that we may orient ourselves immediately. The information about being upside down (or in some other abnormal orientation) is also sent to the hypothalamus (an area of the brain) so that we can become consciously aware of our position. The information is also sent to the “reticular formation” (another area of the brain – a sort of a volume control on our state of wakefulness. In this way, if we are asleep and start to fall, the vestibular stimulations would wake us up. This is also why rolling an anesthetized animal from side to side is used to hasten anesthetic recovery).

What are the symptoms of vestibular disease?

If there is trouble in the vestibular apparatus, then one may not properly perceive one’s orientation. To put it more simply, one won’t know which way is up, whether or not one is standing up straight or slanted, and one will feel very dizzy.

The following are signs of vestibular disease:

  • Ataxia (lack of coordination without weakness or involuntary spasms – in other words, stumbling and staggering around)
  • Motion sickness
  • Nystagmus (back and forth or rotational eye movements
  • Circling
  • Head tilt (usually toward the side of the lesion)
  • Falling to one side (usually toward the side of the lesion)
  • Trouble with other nerves controlling the head and face

What causes vestibular problems?

Vestibular disease can come from problems in the brain (infection, stroke, or tumor) itself affecting the areas mentioned above. Or, it can occur due to disease (infection or tumor) in the inner ear. Both dogs and cats can get a form of this disease that has no known cause, but comes on very quickly (Idiopathic vestibular disease).

How do our veterinarians diagnose vestibular disease?

Diagnosis of this problem begins with a thorough history, physical and neurologic examination. Certain aspects of the neurologic exam can help the veterinarian determine if the problem is in the brain or in the inner ear (sometimes it is not possible to make this determination). If an inner ear infection is suspect, radiographs of the skull can be taken which may document the problem. Sometimes, fluid will be aspirated from the middle ear (through the ear drum) to be submitted for analysis and culture.

If a brain lesion is suspected, a cerebro-spinal fluid tap may help with the diagnosis or an MRI (magnetic resonance image) may be performed.

Pets with vestibular disease vary in their symptomatology. Some pets have just a minor head tilt and may be treated as an outpatient after appropriate diagnostics have been run. Others are so dizzy that they are rolling and vomiting. These pets must be supported with intravenous fluids, anti-emetics and supportive care until the vestibular crisis passes. Definitive treatment depends on the cause of the problem. Ear related problems require surgery to remove the infection or tumor from the middle ear. This is done by way of a surgery called a bulla osteotomy or a total ear ablation. This surgery may have side effects including facial nerve paralysis (temporary or permanent) and infection, but generally, it is the best chance to help the ailing pet. Pets suffering from idiopathic vestibulitis may improve with anti-inflammatory and anti-nausea drugs.

What is the prognosis for vestibular disease?

The prognosis for vestibular disease varies with the different causes. Idiopathic vestibulitis is one of the most common causes and holds a pretty good prognosis. Most pets will improve over 3-7 days and go on to live a normal life (although a residual head tilt is common). Inner ear infections may require surgery to relieve symptoms. This usually means sacrificing the middle ear, but usually, these pets have already lost hearing in that ear. If the surgery is successful, these pets should go on to live a normal life (although a residual head tilt is possible). Brain lesions such as strokes and tumors hold a much more guarded prognosis. Some tumors are surgically removable while others may improve with radiation and/or chemotherapy.