Oisin was just a six month old baby when Patch arrived in the family household. The two of them have grown up together, and Oisin can’t imagine life without Patch: his dog has always been a part of his life.
In recent times, Patch has begun to slow down due to his advanced age, but he still enjoys his walks, and he still causes mischief by digging holes in the garden. Oisin and his family are aware that he won’t be around forever, and when Patch fell ill last week, they presumed that he was in serious trouble.
The problem started one morning: after getting up and going for a short walk as usual, Patch suddenly started staggering around the room. At first it seemed as if he was just limping: perhaps he had landed awkwardly on a leg, and he might quickly recover. It soon became obvious that the problem was much more serious: Patch was lurching from side to side, unable to stand up at all. When Oisin offered him his breakfast, Patch refused, which was not a good sign: he normally loves his food. Oisin managed to tempt him to eat by offering him a slice of cooked ham, but shortly after, he vomited: another bad sign.
The situation seemed bleak: Patch had been transformed from a fit, active, older dog into a trembling, stumbling, invalid. Oisin and his family presumed the worst: their dog must have suffered a stroke or some other fundamental medical catastrophe. They brought Patch down to see me with a sense of finality, ready to say goodbye to their much-loved pet.
When I examined Patch, he was still unable to stand up and walk properly. He was holding his head tilted to the right, and when I looked into his eyes with a pen torch, I could see that they were flicking rapidly from side to side. When I checked him over physically, I could find few other signs of ill health. The family was relieved when I told them that the situation was far less bleak than they had feared.
Patch was suffering from a problem that’s common in older dogs, known as “vestibulitis”. This condition used to be known as a “stroke”, but in fact, the brain itself is completely unaffected. The signs are caused, instead, by inflammation of the delicate balance system in the middle ear. From the dog’s perspective, the world starts whirling around: the characteristic flicking of their eyes represents their efforts to cope with dizziness. Nobody knows why vestibulitis happens, but the good news is that with simple treatment, most dogs make a full recovery.
It’s important to visit the vet, because there are other diseases that can appear identical to a lay person, including genuine strokes and brain tumours. A simple physical examination by the vet is usually enough to confirm what’s going on.
Treatment is simple, with anti-inflammatory medication and plenty of rest. Some dogs need to be fed by hand, because they’re unable to balance well enough to eat on their own. Rarely, the signs are so dramatic that euthanasia does need to be considered, but most animals recover in less than a week.
Patch, like many dogs with this problem, has been left with a permanent mild head tilt: his left eye is slightly higher than his right eye. This gives him a continual quizzical look, as if he’s looking at Oisin to say “are we there yet?”
As far as Patch is concerned, the answer to this question is definitely “no”. His illness may have given his owners a fright, but Patch should still have a long way to go on his journey of life.
- Many older dogs suffer from episodes commonly known as “strokes”
- The correct term for these episodes is “vestibulitis”
- Most cases seem dramatically ill at the time, but most go on to make a full recovery