Winston, a nineteen year old Tibetan Terrier who was being treated for a brain tumour.

Yvonne took Winston on as a tiny six week old puppy, and for nearly twenty years, he’s been a central part of her life. He’s been a healthy dog over the years, and regular visits to a professional dog groomer mean that he’s always looked his best.

The first signs of a brain problem started six months ago. At the age of eighteen, Winston was already beginning to live a quieter life, going for shorter walks, and spending much of his time sleeping in his favourite spot at home. He had a habit of running into the house, and jumping onto the couch, but on one occasion, when he tried to do this he stumbled, and had to scramble to get up. Yvonne put him down on the ground and watched him carefully, and she noticed that he was walking in large circles rather than in his usual straight line.

When she brought him to see me, the first thing that I noticed was that his eyes were flicking rapidly from side to side. This was an indication that the balance mechanisms, located somewhere between his inner ears and the centre of his brain, were not working properly.

The most common cause of this problem is known as “old dog vestibulitis”. This is often referred to as a “stroke” because of the fact that it happens in older dogs, and it superficially resembles a mild stroke in humans. In fact, it is a completely different disease process, with the brain itself remaining unaffected. The problem is due to inflammation of the balance centre in the inner ear. Affected dogs perceive the world as spinning around them, and they feel dizzy. Their eyes flick from side to side in an attempt to make sense of what’s happening, and they stagger and walk in circles. Many owners fear that their dog has reached the end of their lives when they develop this problem, but in fact, most animals make a dramatic recovery over a period of days and weeks. Some dogs are left with minor abnormalities, such as a head tilt, but they are usually able to live full, normal lives.

An MRI scan is the only way to make a definite diagnosis of this problem, but this is expensive and can be difficult to arrange. In most cases when it’s suspected, a general treatment is given, using anti-inflammatory medication. If a dog makes a full recovery, this confirms the diagnosis. If a dog doesn’t do so well, this raises the suspicion of a different underlying disease.

In Winston’s case, the dizziness, flicking eyes, and walking in circles continued despite the treatment. Without an MRI scan, it’s impossible to know what disease process is going on inside his head. I suspect that he has a small brain tumour, but a small haemorrhage or a blood clot in his brain are also possibilities. Yvonne doesn’t want to put him through complex diagnostics, so he’s been given simple treatment and his condition has stabilized.

Winston still walks in circles, and he sometimes bumps into things. But he enjoys going into the garden, sniffing the air as he strolls around at his own pace. He can no longer drink from a water bowl on the ground, so it’s on a stand which brings it to head height so that he can reach it easily.

He loves human contact, and Yvonne often picks him up and hugs him. He falls asleep in her arms every evening. He’s still enjoying life, and although he may not have much more time left with them, Winston is making the most of his old age with the people that he loves.

Tips

  • Brain tumours are common in older dogs
  • A range of signs can be seen, including walking in circles and having fits
  • Simple treatment can help, but a full cure is usually impossible

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