Health‘There’s Something Wrong with Grace!’ – Vestibular (aka ‘Old Dog’) Syndrome

February 23, 2022

These were the words I sobbed out on the phone to a friend that’s a certified veterinary technician. As a lifetime animal care professional*, I was trying to assess all the symptoms I was seeing and determine how quickly I needed to get her to an emergency veterinarian. Grace, lovingly known as the ‘Brown Dog’, is a 14 year old Basset/Beagle mix and has been healthy her entire life other than a few bouts with urinary tract infections. She is very spoiled having grown up the daughter of a Pet Care Facility owner. I have noticed more signs of her aging in the last year with loss of hearing, some vision loss, and many old lady bumps and lumps (pilomas). 

This Sunday, Grace woke up normally and had breakfast. She has always been an excellent eater and doesn’t turn her nose up to any food item…except olives thankfully. We went out for a short walk where she did her normal potty. Within an hour, she wanted to go back outside which was different from her normal routine. She then came inside and laid down next to me. The first thing I noticed that was unusual was her staring off into the distance down a hallway with nothing moving or changing. Then, she got up and wouldn’t walk long distances. She would only take a few unbalanced steps a very short distance, pause, and lean against me. At this point, I sit down on the floor, and she climbs into my lap. For most people, this may not seem odd, but Grace is NOT a snuggler and doesn’t like to be held and has never thought about laying in someone’s lap. So, it was alarming, and I knew immediately she was feeling horrible. Her whole body is now shaking. I start an overall assessment as I am dialing my friend panicked…heart rate, respiration, temperature, capillary refill. My head starts flooding with seizure, stroke, heart failure. The oddest and, as I would find out later, most common symptom was her rapid eye movement left to right with her head slightly following her eyes. I sent a video to my friend of her walking and the eye movement. Based on her other normal vitals, I hear the words ‘it sounds and looks like Vestibular Syndrome’. I am now frantically doing the internet dive into learning about vestibular syndrome while Grace is clinging to my lap. She spent the next hour and a half in this same position. Eventually she moved into a sternal position, laying down in a straight line with head between her front paws, for the next four hours.

Fortunately, I had a previously scheduled yearly wellness appointment with her veterinarian for the following morning. What I learned is that vestibular syndrome is also known as old dog syndrome since it occurs primarily in older dogs. There are no precursors. Treating the symptoms is the best way to manage this (consult your veterinarian on your best treatment options). It is rare that it will occur more than once for a dog. Based on Grace’s symptoms, I equated it to vertigo in humans. Grace did not want to eat that night and needed help getting up and walking for potty breaks. She was almost completely back to normal the following morning. She was raring for breakfast and could walk independently, although she was drunk walking for a few days.

I began to ask as many people as I knew if they had ever had this same experience or heard of vestibular syndrome. I have yet to find anyone not in the veterinary medical field with any knowledge about this. I talked with my pet care team and showed them the video as an educational tool. This was very scary for me and my children to watch with our family dog. I hope sharing Grace’s story will provide a little bit of education on a lesser-known ailment in geriatric dogs.

Thanks for reading.

Angela Pickren


*I am not a veterinarian.  You should always seek medical advice from a licensed veterinarian.