Have you noticed that your dog is wobbly and off balance? Book an appointment with your vet today, as this could require immediate attention. Imbalance in your pup could be a symptom of a serious problem, and failure to take action may be life-threatening to your canine companion.
Whether you’ve noticed this symptom in your own dog or just want to learn more in the interest of being proactive, we recommend you read through each of the five most common reasons your dog is wobbly and off balance.
Why is my dog wobbly and off-balance?
The vestibular system in dogs, just as in humans, is located in the inner ear. This system assists your dog with his balance, equilibrium, head motion, and spatial orientation. In addition, the vestibular system helps your dog stay stable and maintain an upright posture.
When the system is disrupted, you may notice that your dog is wobbly and off balance. There are a few reasons this could occur, with stroke, head trauma, and infection being the most likely. Intoxication and Canine Vestibular Syndrome, which is the degradation of the vestibular system itself, are two additional causes that are possible although they’re less common.
Let’s take a closer look at the most common reasons your dog may be experiencing imbalance. Note that it can be quite difficult to diagnose a problem without the assistance of a veterinarian. We strongly recommend that you bring your dog to the vet of your choice if he is displaying symptoms of imbalance.
1) Dog Stroke
What is a dog stroke?
Generally speaking, a dog stroke is the loss of blood flow to a dog’s brain. This loss of blood flow causes neurological abnormalities, and stroke can be a reason why your dog is wobbly and off balance. With the modern accessibility of MRI and CT scans, dog strokes are relatively easy to diagnose. Your vet can help you assess the cause of your pup’s stroke and the prognosis for your pup.
There are two common reasons for stroke in dogs. First, a dog stroke can be caused by an obstruction in your pup’s blood vessels. This is called an ischemic stroke, and can be a result of parasites, blood clots, tumor cells, or even bacteria. Secondly, your dog may experience a hemorrhagic stroke. This is bleeding from the brain, typically due to the rupture of blood vessels caused by clotting disorders.
Dog strokes usually last only a few minutes but in more serious instances a stroke can last several hours or even days. If your companion has a stroke, you’ll likely find that he is acting normal one moment, then the next moment your dog is wobbly and off balance. Strokes can occur in dogs of all ages, but usually older dogs are more susceptible.
Symptoms of Dog Stroke
In humans, stroke is apparent when speech is slurred or memory is lost. Dogs, of course, can’t talk. It’s important to know the subtle symptoms of dog stroke.
Symptoms of a dog stroke:
- Dog is wobbly and off-balance. The most common signs of a dog stroke are an abnormal gait, an uncoordinated appearance, or a loss of balance. Some owners report that their dog looks intoxicated. In severe cases, your dog may fall down on their front legs or may tip over sideways onto the ground.
- Head is positioned sideways. Loss of spatial awareness can cause your dog to tilt their head sideways permanently. If you noticed that your dog’s head isn’t normally positioned upright then they may be experiencing a dog stroke.
- Abnormal eye positioning and movements. Since dog strokes are linked to the brain, your dog may be experiencing abnormal eye movements and positioning. Your dog may be unable to focus properly, may be moving his eyes back and forth, or you may notice his pupils positioned to the left or the right.
- Loss of all consciousness. Loss of consciousness happens in ischemic dog strokes. If your dog is unable to wake up or falls down and is unable to regain consciousness, this may be sign of an ischemic dog stroke.
Causes of a Dog Stroke
Dog strokes tend to most frequently affect dogs that are very old or dogs that have a disease related to a blood clot or bleeding. Some diseases that significantly increase the chance of a dog stroke are Cushing’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and kidney disease. Most dog owners whose pups have had a stroke choose to euthanize their companions; the quality of life for these animals is drastically reduced. This, however, is a decision that should be discussed with your vet – together you can determine the best course of action to assist your dog.
Strokes can’t be prevented, and some dog breeds are more likely to suffer them. Breeds that are susceptible to blood clotting diseases, for instance, have an increased probability of having a stroke.
2) Canine Vestibular Syndrome in Dogs
What is Canine Vestibular Syndrome in dogs?
The vestibular system in dogs connects the inner ear to the brain. The brain processes the information received, and your dog is able to control his balance and his eye movements.
Any abnormality in the vestibular system can be diagnosed as Canine Vestibular Syndrome. Canine Vestibular Syndrome means that, whatever the cause, your dog is wobbly and off balance due to the degradation of this system. You may hear your vet talk about vestibular disease, old dog vestibular syndrome, or Canine Odiopathic Vestibular Syndrome. All of these terms are essentially names for the same condition.
In order to diagnose Canine Vestibular Syndrome, your veterinarian will conduct a physical examination that involves checking your dog’s coordination and eye movements. There are two main types of Vestibular disease: Peripheral Vestibular Disease and Central Vestibular Disease.
Peripheral Vestibular Disease
Peripheral Vestibular Disease is typically caused by an inner ear infection, cancer, or ruptures to the inner ear. Once the condition or infection starts affecting the balance of your dog in their inner ear, it is known as Peripheral Vestibular Disease.
Peripheral Vestibular Disease is common in dog breeds that are prone to ear infections. If your dog has ear mites or long ears that are not regularly cleaned, they are more prone to develop Peripheral Vestibular Disease. Popular dog breeds that are notorious for developing Peripheral Vestibular Disease include cocker spaniels, hounds, and goldendoodles. In order to prevent Peripheral Vestibular Disease, it’s important that you regularly clean your dog’s ears. Your vet or groomer can assist you if you feel uncomfortable doing this yourself.
Central Vestibular Disease
Central Vestibular Disease is caused by conditions that affect the brainstem, cerebellum, or both. Cancer is the most common cause of Central Vestibular Disease; more specifically, lesions developed as a result of the cancer will cause the condition. Poison ingestion, inflammation of the inner ear, and inflammation of the brain are additional causes of Central Vestibular Disease.
Symptoms of Vestibular Disease
In general, the signs of Peripheral Vestibular Disease and Central Vestibular Disease are similar. General signs of Canine Vestibular Syndrome in dogs are below:
- Dog is drooling and having difficulty eating. Typically, your dog may lose motor skills and have a lack of appetite.
- Dog is wobbly and off-balance. Coordination and balance are controlled by the vestibular system. Any abnormality will cause your dog to become wobbly and off-balance. An example of this would be that your dog keeps falling down the stairs.
- Dog is making repetitive and uncontrollable eye movements. This is also known as nystagmus. Look for eye movements that go side to side, up and down, or in a circular motion.
- Dog has a head tilt. The head typically tilts towards the direction of the loss of muscle — the loss of muscle side is typically the side of the cancer or lesion.
- Abnormal Gait. If you notice your dog walking funny or their walk is off-balance they may have Vestibular Disease.
- Old dog Vestibular Disease panting. Typically, older dogs are more susceptible to Vestibular Disease and you may notice that your dog is panting uncontrollably.
Causes of a Vestibular Disease
Older dogs are more susceptible to vestibular disease which is why the condition is often times called Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome. In addition, canines that have large ears that can easily trap moisture and develop bacterial inner ear infections can more easily develop Peripheral Vestibular Syndrome.
3) Dog Head Trauma
We never want anything bad to happen to our dogs, but sometimes accidents do happen. If your dog is actaing abnormally, think back – did your dog recently his his head? Maybe your dog was hit by a car or accidentally dropped on the ground. In any event, it’s important to recognize dog head injury symptoms.
Dog Head Injury Symptoms:
- Lack of energy or lethargy
- Coordination problems
- Wobbly and off-balance
- Loss of consciousness
- Bleeding from the head or nose
- Unusual eye movements
Typically, in humans, we would check for memory functionality and brain function. Unfortunately, we cannot do this for our dogs. If you notice any of these symptoms for your dog’s head trauma, it’s important to get them to a veterinarian right away. These are symptoms of conditions that can potentially lead to significant injuries and should be dealt with immediately.
Types of Dog Head Trauma
A dog’s skull is thicker than a humans, so relatively speaking the animals can tolerate a bit more head trauma than we can. However, rough dog play or a significant fall can cause several different types of dog head trauma. Below are the most common types of dog head trauma:
- Concussion. Like humans, dogs can get concussions when they receive a traumatic injury to the brain. If you suspect that your dog has a concussion, it’s important to get them to a calm place and be observant. Monitor your dog and make note of any instances of nausea, pain, and lethargy. Dog concussions can range from mild to severe, and it’s usually fine just to monitor your dog unless they exhibit symptoms.
- Brain swelling in dogs. Severe dog head trauma can cause significant brain swelling in dogs, this is also known as edema. The swelling in your dog’s brain can cause pressure to build, and eventually the brain will press against the skull. This will cause severe discomfort for your dog, but more importantly it may be fatal if left untreated.
- Hemorrhage. In addition to brain swelling, your dog may also experience bleeding around the brain. When your dog has uncontrolled bleeding in the brain this is known as a hemorrhage. If you think the impact of a dog’s head trauma was severe enough to cause a brain injury, you need to see a veterinarian right away.
Common causes of dog head trauma:
- Dropping your dog on the ground
- Car hitting your dog
- Collision with another dog’s head
- Dog running into an object like a glass door or table while fetching a ball
Please make sure to see a veterinarian right away if you think your dog’s head trauma was severe.
4) Inner Ear Infection in Dogs
If your dog has long ears that aren’t cleaned regularly, chances are they have had an inner ear infection. The ear canal is an “L shape” that traps moisture. Over time, this causes bacteria and yeast to develop which causes ear infections. In addition, if your dog has ear mites, this can also lead to inner ear infections in dogs.
Symptoms of an Inner Ear Infection for Dogs:
- Dog is constantly whining
- Dog is scratching or itching their ear
- Ear discharge and bad-smelling odor
- Dog is wobbly and off-balance. You may notice that your dog keeps falling down the stairs or can’t keep his balance.
Sometimes dogs don’t exhibit many symptoms of an inner ear infection other than a slight discharge from the ear canal. It’s important to make sure that you are consistently cleaning your dog’s ear’s in order to avoid infection.
If the inner ear infection in your dog is left untreated it will begin to affect the vestibular system. The inner ear infection will cause your dog to develop Peripheral Vestibular Disease which may cause your dog to lose their balance and become wobbly.
5) Dog Tumor
A tumor is one of the most dreaded diagnoses, but tumors are surprisingly common. In fact, over 65 million dogs in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer each year. In addition, in 2011, cancer was the leading cause of death in older dogs according to research at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.
If a dog tumor affects a certain part of the brain, this can often cause many different symptoms like dizziness and imbalance. If you notice any abnormal lumps near your dog’s head, they may have a dog tumor.
Conclusion for Dog is Wobbly and Off-Balance
Dogs can experience dizziness, falling, and balance issues for a variety of reasons. The five most common reasons for a wobbly and off-balance dog are stroke, Canine Vestibular Syndrome, inner ear infection, head trauma, and tumors. Since many of these reasons are severe, we recommend that you see a veterinarian if your dog is wobbly and off-balance.
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Frequently asked questions:
My dog keeps falling down the stairs. What does this mean?
If your dog is on the older side then chances are they have developed some type of Canine Vestibular Syndrome. It’s normal for older dogs to lose some of their reflexes over time. If your dog is younger, check for an ear infection or try to teach them how to properly walk down the stairs in order to prevent them from falling. In any case, it may be best to consult a veterinarian as this may be dangerous for your dog over time.
Why is my dog acting wobbly all of a sudden?
If your dog is wobbly and off balance, this could be a sign of several health issues and you should seek emergency veterinary help. But if you have a senior dog, imbalance could be due to arthritis, hip dysplasia, or nerve damage.
In other words, it really depends. A proper diagnosis by a veterinarian is key especially as kidney disease, Cushing’s disease, heart, disease, hypertension, bleeding disorders, strokes, and even cancer could be in play.
If your dog is just a little bit unsteady on its feet and is not in any pain, it could simply be due to old age or an inner ear infection. You should seek immediate veterinary care if your dog is experiencing more serious symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, or paralysis. Here are some potential causes:
- Inner/middle ear infections
- Syncope & seizures
- Infectious or inflammatory diseases (meningitis)
- Canine Vestibular Syndrome
- Central Vestibular Disease
- Head Trauma
Why is my dog walking like he is drunk?
Vestibular disease is a possible reason for your dog walking as if he’s intoxicated. Vestibular disease is a condition that impacts the inner ear and balance center of the brain and can cause a dog to become uncoordinated and unsteady on its feet.
If your dog displays other symptoms, such as head tilt, nystagmus (abnormal eye movements), and vomiting, then the vestibular disease is likely a culprit.
However, there are other possible causes of these symptoms, so it is best to have your dog examined by a veterinarian to rule out any other potential problems.
Why is my dog lethargic and wobbly?
There are many possible reasons why your dog may be lethargic and wobbly. It could be something as simple as not getting enough exercise or being too hot or a sign of a more severe condition such as heat stroke or an infection. If your dog is older, it’s normal for them to lose some of their reflexes. With younger dogs, the symptoms are usually signs of an ear infection or head trauma.
Various things can cause lethargy and wobbliness, including infection, disease, pain, or medication. If your dog displays other symptoms, lethargy, and wobbliness, or if the condition persists for more than a day, it is best to consult your veterinarian.
Lethargy and wobbliness could be due to severe chronic disease or life-threatening illness. Always check your pet’s meds to ensure that you’re administering the correct dosage. You should also make sure that there are no interactions with pet meds. Additionally, consider purchasing pet insurance even if your pup is a senior. It’s never too late!
What does a stroke in a dog look like?
A stroke in a dog can exhibit through a wide range of symptoms, depending on the severity and location of the stroke. Pet MD explains that a stroke is a loss of blood flow to brain parts that leads to neurologic abnormalities.
Two mechanisms cause strokes: an obstruction in blood vessels (ischemic strokes) due to blood clots, tumor cells, clumps of platelets, bacteria, and parasites; and bleeds in the brain (hemorrhagic strokes), which result from the rupture of blood vessels or clotting disorders.
Some common signs include:
- Weakness or paralysis in one or more limbs
- Inability to walk properly
- Loss of consciousness
- Sudden blindness or vision problems
- Loss of balance and coordination
- Head tilt
- Unusual eye movements
- Rapid onset of symptoms
- Falling to one side
- Abnormal behavior
If you think your dog may be having a stroke, it is essential to seek veterinary care immediately. Unfortunately, strokes can be fatal, so prompt treatment is necessary.
How can you tell if a dog has had a stroke?
If you think your dog may have had a stroke, there are several things you can look for. First, check for sudden changes in your dog’s behavior or appearance. Signs may include paralysis, weakness, loss of balance, and vision problems.
Dr. Sinott, in an article published by PetMD, explains that one minute owners report the pet is fine, and the next [the pet] cannot get up. These signs may last a few minutes or longer (hours to days).
Dr. Sinott says that the signs may be frightening and associated with dog discomfort, and some owners elect to euthanize their pets.
You may also notice that your dog is having trouble eating or drinking or that he is drooling more than usual. If you see any of these signs, take your dog to the vet immediately. A stroke is a severe medical emergency, and the sooner your dog is treated, the better his chances for recovery.
Dr. Sabrina Kong graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in England in 2016 and has been working at a small animal clinic in Northern California since then. She grew up in the Bay Area and got her bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. She also became a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner through a program at the University of Tennessee.
When she isn’t in the clinic taking care of her four-legged patients, she enjoys traveling and trying new foods with her friends and her three-legged dog, Apollo. She adopted Apollo from her clinic when he was a puppy with numerous health issues. Dr. Kong truly cares about taking care of animals.