Jana’s had a rough week.
She’s dealing with something that is fairly common, but a lot of her friends and family weren’t familiar with it: vestibular disease. It’s also called “old dog vestibular disease,” since it is especially common among older dogs. But Jana regards herself as neither a dog nor old, so we’re just calling it vestibular disease.
It shows up suddenly and looks for all the world like your dog has had a stroke. She might have. She also might have an inner ear infection, a brain bleed, a brain tumor — or none of these. Most vestibular incidents are idiopathic. A fancy way of saying the vet has no idea why your dog cannot stand up or staggers around like she’s drunk. Very drunk.
In Jana’s case, she woke up in the middle of the night and struggled to stand up. I know this because what woke me up was the sound of her flailing and falling. I calmed her down and we went back to sleep. In the morning, she could not walk. I got her outside to toilet and then into the car. Her vet offered the suggestions of vestibular disease, inner ear infection, or tumor. The tumor idea arose primarily because Jana’s left eye looked much larger than her right and was bulging a little.
I got her home and settled her in the yard. She spent the weekend struggling to stand and unable to walk without a lot of help. But by Sunday afternoon, she was noticeably better. I made arrangements with two wonderful individuals, our longtime friend Sally and our new dog walker, Stephanie, to care for Jana on Monday and Tuesday, as I had work meetings that I could not miss.
By Monday afternoon, Jana was taking herself outside. She was very unsteady and fell a lot but did not want help.
Since she’s a golden retriever, it might be unnecessary to mention that her appetite did not suffer a bit during any of this, but she needed help eating.
The vestibular system is what helps you balance and orient your body. Hers was way out of whack. This was not paralysis or muscle weakness. It was extreme dizziness and disorientation. She got meds for the supposed nausea (though she never seemed nauseated) and for the possible inner ear infection. She slowly recovered, walking a bit better each day, all week, and we went for a neurological consult at the end of the week. The neurologist said that her excellent progress, along with the improvement in her eye, indicated that a tumor is not likely. The only way to know for sure whether she has (or does not have) a tumor and to figure out (maybe) why this happened is an MRI and spinal tap. I’m not doing that for a number of reasons. If Jana stops improving or gets worse, I will have to figure out next steps. But right now, she’s doing well.
It’s important to know several things about vestibular disease.
One is that it’s not painful. It is probably scary and miserable, though. I had an inner ear infection once and was horrifically dizzy. If Jana was experiencing anything like that, she has my sympathy. She was also much more of a trouper than I was; I couldn’t even keep water down. She scarfed down cookies, water, meals … a true golden.
Another is that most dogs recover — and quickly. The most significant recovery happens in the first two or three days. Many dogs have a wobbly gait and maybe a head tilt for a week or two. The head tilt might never go away. Jana’s head tilts noticeably to the right when she’s standing up. When she’s lying down, I don’t see it. And it too is a little better every day.
Many dogs recover and continue living perfectly normal lives, though some have additional episodes. Some have permanent effects — a limp, unsteadiness, the head tilt.
Finally, it’s important to emphasize that Jana had no personality changes, no cognitive damage — she’s still very much herself. As soon as she could stand, she was asking to go out on her own, did not want help, and did not want me or anyone else hovering over her. She was back on the job, demanding that I let her out to get the paper, by Tuesday morning.
It’s scary to wake up to a dog who cannot stand up. It is also scary to have to figure out how to get a 60-lb. dog outside to pee or into the car when she cannot support her own weight. We really need 30-lb goldens. If she had not recovered quickly, I would have had to make some hard decisions. I was very relieved to see Jana trying to stand, and, slowly, getting her bearings back.
A vet tech who takes care of Jana said that lots of owners panic when they see their dogs’ initial symptoms, and many make the difficult choice to euthanize. So I want to emphasize again that dramatic improvement in the first two-three days is the norm. If that is not what happens, then the dog might have something other than vestibular disease.
Cali was concerned and attentive throughout all of this — to me and to Jana — but also worried about missing her ball time and park visits. She bumped into Jana a few times before understanding that she needed to be more gentle. She’s been remarkably patient overall, though, and very good company.
Jana is still unsteady, but she doesn’t fall every time she shakes off or turns a corner. She’s cautious on steps, but we only have a couple of small ones. She wants to go for walks and visit her friend in the neighborhood. She wants to sniff and check out the news and get to her favorite grassy patch. I’m looking forward to the day that she’s stable enough to head out to the coast for a beach day. We all deserve one.