What causes dogs to walk like drunken sailors
In life, we all like to strive for balance. We talk about balanced diet, balance between work and pleasure, exercise and rest… Balance is a state of harmony between several opposing forces. It brings a sense of pleasure and contentment.
One of the best examples of balance is the simple act of standing up and staying upright. An organ that helps us find the equilibrium is the vestibulum in the inner ear, another is the cerebellum, which is located at the base of the brain. These two represent the peripheral and the central portions of balance.
When it comes to topics for my articles, I seldom plan them. More often than not, my patients/clients inspire me and sometimes it is my own dog Skai who decides that it is time for a new lesson.
Story of my dog Skai from spring 2014
Skai turned 13 in August 2014. He is normally a happy, healthy boisterous dog that loves being with his humans and canine friends and enjoys, among other things, runs in the forest.
One day, I woke up and could not find Skai in his usual morning spot. After a brief search, I found him lying on the bathroom floor, looking up at me with a clear call for help in his eyes. I tried to help him get up, but he immediately crashed back to the floor, his eyes flickering from side to side. I could feel my heart sinking because I knew that there was something seriously wrong. Once again I tried to support Skai to stand, but instead he released his bladder. He seemed embarrassed and petrified.
At the moment, it didn’t matter that I was a vet and had a veterinary degree. Right then I was a human, a dog lover and a “dad” seeing my lovely sweet friend in distress. Tears started rolling down my cheeks. The list of differential diagnoses flickered through my head and, similar to what my clients commonly do, I immediately thought of the worst - a stroke! But why, how!!! My dog was so healthy!
I will not keep you in suspense. Skai has completely recovered from what was not a stroke, but an episode of vestibular syndrome. Thanks to this experience, I can now relate to my clients even better than before. As a result, I decided to write this article to help you recognize if your dog is suffering from an inner ear problem or a stroke and give you simple suggestions on how to address vestibular disease naturally.
A small lesson in ear and cerebellar anatomy and function
Reports say that 95 percent of all the human worries are completely unnecessary and the same applies to our dogs and vestibular syndrome. The vestibulum, the organ of balance is located in the inner ear. This is where the problem resides.
There are three semicircular canals within the inner ear that convey information to the brain about the positioning and movement of the head. In these canals there is fluid that flows when your dog’s head moves. Within them there are hair-like receptors that register the fluid movement. The vestibulum also contains calcium carbonate crystals that float in the inner ear and register the speed and direction of movement.
What are the causes of vestibular syndrome?
There are many potential causes of vestibular syndrome. Usually, older dogs are affected. Many people argue what the origin of the condition is, but I believe the main causes are neck or head trauma, tightness of the jaw muscles and also sudden movements of the head.
What happened to Skai?
Skai is a service dog and I sometimes take him along to restaurants. He usually lies down under the table and the night before the vestibular attack a person at the next table dropped a fork on Skai’s head. He got spooked and jumped up quickly. The fast head movement may have displaced the little calcium carbonate crystals (otoliths) in the vestibular organ within the inner ear.
When otoliths are displaced, the whole equilibrium is out of balance and the brain needs to readjust to the new situation. This can take several weeks.
The main symptoms of vestibular syndrome:
- Horizontal, side-to-side nystagmus (eye flickering movement)
- One-sided head tilt
- Loss of balance and wavering gait
- Inability to assess the speed of movement
- Loss of appetite because of vertigo
- Peripheral reflexes are usually normal
The main symptoms of a stroke
In a stroke involving the cerebellum, the vestibulum is intact and the loss of balance comes from the dysfunction of the cerebellum. A stroke is usually a result of lack of blood flow to a certain portion of the brain, which results in the brain tissue dying. This causes loss of brain function. A stroke can be also caused by trauma and hemorrhage (bruising) of the brain tissue.
There is often vertical and diagonal eye movement (as opposed to horizontal movement only), the eye movement is usually more erratic and the condition could be compared to an individual who had too much alcohol. Unlike in vestibular syndrome, peripheral reflexes may be abnormal.
What to do when you suspect vestibular syndrome or stroke?
First take a breath. It is natural for us to worry about the worst case scenario, but it is more likely your dog has a vestibular syndrome.
The way your dog feels is very likely similar to what you feel when you spin fast on a carousel and then stop. He or she may be dizzy and unable to hold their balance.
- Help your dog lie down, offer water, but in the beginning, do not offer any food
- Give homeopathic remedy called Cocculus Indicus (in 30 or 200 C potency). In some countries, this potency may be labeled 30 or 200 CH.*
*If the homeopathic pellets are the size of BB gun pellets, give about three. Crush them between two spoons and give one dose every one to two hours for the first three doses, then give one dose twice daily for three to five days. If the pellets are the size of poppy seeds - give about 20 to 30. I suggest you call your veterinarian immediately if possible and have your dog examined and get both blood work and a urine test done. This is important to ensure that there are no abnormal findings such as diabetes or an infection.
There are some tick-borne diseases and toxoplasmosis that are worth checking for if your dog lives in an area of occurrence or has a habit of eating kitty litter or 'poop-sicles'. In Skai’s case, I knew it was unlikely but possible that he had an infectious encephalitis so I ran these tests just to be on the safe side.
If you see your vet or an animal neurologist, he or she may suggest an MRI to rule out a stroke. In my opinion, it is better to give your dog a few days and see if there is an improvement. This is what I did. My biggest concern was that a general anesthesia for an MRI would mean additional stress for Skai. I decided to wait out the weekend and scheduled an MRI tentatively about five days later. By that time, I could see Skai improved significantly and decided to cancel and schedule again if his conditioned worsened.
The most important part of the treatment is support.
As you can see on the blood test below, Skai’s results made me very happy. They were spotless and that is not that common in a thirteen-year-old dog. Seeing the results made me feel like we were really dealing with a vestibular syndrome.
Here is a list of supplements that Skai got at the time of treatment that you should consider giving a dog with vestibular syndrome:
- Zyflamend to reduce inflammation of the inner ear and reduce the chances of neck muscle stiffness if there is a head tilt.
- GreenMin to ensure that there are sufficient levels of minerals and amino-acids. Deficiencies are often at the core of many conditions. Every cell and organ in the body depends on essential nutrients.
- SoulFood, a certified organic multivitamin to ensure proper healing and nervous system function.
- Omega oils that help tissue healing and regeneration.
Proper energy and nerve flow is essential
I mentioned that many cases of vestibular syndrome, or even a stroke, may be the result of a neck or head trauma that is often missed or not acknowledged by a vet. Head tilt is often one of the symptoms and loss of balance may also cause muscle strain and spasm. A collar injury is a common cause and a harness for a dog with vestibular syndrome is highly recommended.
I suggest seeing your animal chiropractor, osteopath or physiotherapist at least twice the first week and then weekly for the next two to three treatments. Monthly adjustments are highly recommended in any middle-aged or senior dog. This can make a huge difference in your dog’s long-term health and add years of quality time to their life. If you aren’t doing it already, healthy natural raw or cooked diet also helps.
Other therapies such as T-touch, cranial sacral therapy, reiki and energy healing may be beneficial. The results vary widely depending on the skills and expertise of the practitioner.
Rehabilitation time and prognosis
It is important to talk about the recovery period. If your dog has been affected by vestibular syndrome, time is the main ingredient. Most dogs recover within two to three weeks. However, even after that period, you may see the odd stumble. I see a huge difference between dogs that are nourished well and have their skull, neck and back regularly adjusted.
There is no need to rush your dog back into doing the same tricks and level of activity as before. However, walking and gradually increasing the level of exercise is the way to go. Skai was hanging pretty low the first week, but after that I let him choose if he wanted to run and how much. Just try not to push your dog too much. There is nowhere to rush, nothing to prove.
The most important thing to remember: Vestibular syndrome looks dramatic, but the prognosis of this condition is very good and has usually no long-term effect on the quality of your dog’s life and longevity.
It is just a good reminder to spend more time with our dogs while we can.