Did My Dog Have a Stroke?

Sad senior dog
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Q. I think my old dog had a stroke, but he seemed a lot better by morning. I took him to our veterinarian, and she said Old Dog Vestibular Disease was a common problem in old dogs, but it looks worse than it is and should resolve completely in a few days. Will it happen again?

A. It may happen again, but your vet is correct: Old Dog Vestibular Disease — veterinarians call it simply ODV —  isn’t as bad as it looks or sounds. And that’s good, because it can seem pretty bad when your pet is stricken with it.

When old dogs get ODV, they usually develop a sudden loss of balance accompanied by a head tilt. To them the world seems to be spinning, and they may roll on the ground and may even vomit from motion sickness. Because the onset of symptoms can come on an old dog so quickly and so dramatically, it’s natural to jump to the conclusion that a pet is near death or that euthanasia needs to be considered. But this is one situation where we veterinarians get to deliver some good news when the worst seems to be at hand.

My friend Dr. Tony Johnson, a board-certified specialist in emergency and critical care and professor at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, explains what it feels like for a dog with ODV:

It’s like the game kids play where they spin around and stop suddenly: The world just keeps on spinning. With kids, the spinning slows down and stops after a few minutes, but for dogs the spinning can go on for days.… If you look closely at the eyes of a dog suffering from ODV, his eyes rapidly dart back and forth (a condition called nystagmus) as if he is watching an unseen tennis match.

Signs of ODV can vary somewhat. For example, not all dogs get nystagmus, but some are so off-balance that they can’t sit up, stand or walk. And not all dogs vomit, but they may be so nauseous that they drool excessively. Nobody really knows why some old dogs get this condition. It may indeed be like a small stroke, what in people is called a transient ischemic attack, or TIA. It might also be an inflammation of the inner ear (the vestibular system, which controls our sense of balance).

Some dogs can be treated at home and will need only medication for motion sickness and maybe a little old-dog pampering and hand-feeding. For other dogs, typically those with serious health problems or vomiting, a couple days in the hospital on fluids and medication may be necessary. 

Following up with your veterinarian is essential. Since ODV shares symptoms with more serious health problems, if a dog doesn’t return to normal in a few days, it’s time for more diagnostics.

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