This is the final part in my three-part series on our experience with “Old Dog” Vestibular Disease. If you’ve missed the previous posts, you can find them here:
As we headed into week 4, I was starting to feel really positive about Dahlia’s prognosis. The vet had assured me that most dogs make a near-complete recovery and as long as the dog is showing improvement after those first crucial 72 hours, they are likely to continue improving. This was certainly what we’d seen with Dahlia! She had conquered the stairs to the outside. She was able to get around the lower floor of our house with no real issues. She was happy going on walks and doing a bit of play with Ben in the backyard.
But she was not still at 100%. And we were all too well aware of that. Her head was still tilted, though it had become less extreme. She still had not attempted the stairs to our second floor. I was still sleeping in the downstairs guest room with her. And she had not been in a car since Christmas.
We were very careful with Dahlia through her convalescence. She is a dog who came to us with very little confidence and while she had gained so much during her 7+ years with us, Vestibular Disease shook her rather seriously. And so we did not want to try to get her upstairs or into the car before she was really ready to do it. Maybe we were too conservative. Maybe others would have pushed the issue earlier. But I think we ultimately made the right choice for her.
It was the middle of the 4th week after this whole thing began, that Dahlia tried the stairs to the second floor. I still remember it clearly. Ben raced up the stairs as he usually does (Ben does nothing slowly!) and I went upstairs to find him a treat for bed. When I turned around, Dahlia was starting up the stairs. I absolutely panicked. My plan for getting her up the stairs consisted of one person being at the top of the stairs tempting her with treats while the other person stayed directly behind her in case she got wobbly and fell. Because Dahlia is a stubborn dog who does things on her own terms, she just decided to do it with no one behind her in case things went badly.
I rushed down and got behind her just as she got a little wobbly and stopped. She didn’t fall, thankfully. But it was clear at that point she wasn’t ready to continue. I managed to get her to turn around and walk slowly (one step at a time) back down the stairs.
It was scary. She didn’t get all the way up. But she did it. On her own with no coaxing. Dahlia wanted to get better and so she simply did.
It was sometime during the following week that we decided to work more on getting her upstairs. We knew she had it in her and so we gave her a few more days to sleep downstairs and then decided to see if she could do it. She was hesitant and afraid to start up them. Her first experience did not go all that well and she had lost some confidence. So we put her on leash and got out the big guns. The “big guns,” of course, were the treats I used in her agility classes: Hormel dried beef. She loves that stuff. And so we got it out, waved it under her nose, got her really excited and after a bit of hemming and hawing, a bit of wobbling around, she did it. Once she got going, she just kept going (me in front of her tempting her with treats, my husband holding the leash and staying at her side to catch her if she fell) and she got to the top with no real problems.
The next morning was, of course, the next big challenge: Getting her down the stairs. I went down stairs to get some more treats out of the refrigerator and was heading back to go upstairs to put the leash on her and help her down. And lo and behold, Dahlia was making her own way down the stairs. Slowly. One step at a time. But she did it. On her own steam, with no one having to coax her down. She knew she wanted those treats. And so she came down to get them.
Ironically, I was pretty sure the down part would be much tougher than the up part. But Dahlia proved me wrong as she so often does.
By the time weeks 5 and 6 rolled around, Dahlia was regularly racing into the backyard with Ben. She was still a bit wobbly at times and when Ben would do his trick of running 90 mph at her and leaping at her head, she’d fall over. But she got up quicker and would race off after him. Here’s a video shot on day 28 after this whole thing started. You might think the dog running at the camera at first is Ben, but you’re wrong! (And you’ll realize that when the second dog comes flying past the first one.) You can see how much she’s improved since the video I posted last week. She’s much steadier on her feet and while she still struggles a bit and is a bit wobbly, she’s able to run at a pretty decent speed (especially considering she’s running on snow!).
By the end of week 6, she was regularly going up the stairs on her own. We were able to fade out the need for treats to coax her upstairs and every day it seemed like it was just that much easier for her to get started up them. She now goes up the stairs at just the mention of bed time. No treats, no coaxing, and no wobbling at all. And she races down them if she so much as senses someone might be going into the guest room closet (where we keep the treats).
We also noticed that head tilt is almost completely gone. There’s still a bit of a tilt inside, but outside it has disappeared and inside it’s almost not noticeable. This does not happen for all dogs or cats (or, as I found out in doing some research many other animals: rabbits, sheep, cows, and other animals have been affected by this same disease). Some will always retain a small head tilt (and some quite a big head tilt — see Marnie the Dog) so if it doesn’t resolve itself for your dog or cat, don’t be too dismayed!
This left one last thing to conquer for Dahlia: car rides. After Christmas (day 10 of this ordeal). she had not attempted getting into the car. I wanted to make sure she was confident enough to get into it. After seeing her try to get up on the couch and then decide not to do it again, I didn’t want to have the same issue with the car. When Dahlia started to attempt the couch again and got on it successfully, I decided it was time to see if she could do it.
So one day, while my husband was out walking Ben, I grabbed some of her favorite treats and took her out to the car to see what happened. I opened up the doors to the car and turned to see if I could help her. But nope. Dahlia did not need any help. She leapt up into the car like she had never ever had Vestibular Disease. She also had no trouble getting out of the car, landing solidly on the ground without stumbling even a little bit. We went to Petco to celebrate. She got a lot of attention from the people she met there and a few delicious treats.
This is where Dahlia is now. She has her old life back. She can go places with us. She can go upstairs and sleep on her bed at our side. She can run around the backyard with Ben. She gets steadier all the time with running, as you can see in the following videos, shot 7 weeks post-diagnosis.
She is happy and healthy and sometimes it’s almost like this never happened. Just the other day she leapt a branch in our backyard like it was a standard agility jump. I keep saying to people “You wouldn’t know anything is wrong with her.” But the reality is there isn’t anything wrong with her anymore.
But here’s the somewhat sobering reality: our vet told us that this rarely comes back. We left the vet’s office that day feeling relieved that we may never have to face this down again. But having spoken to many people whose dogs and cats have experienced this has led me to believe that a recurrence is not as uncommon as we were led to believe. So will it ever return? It’s hard to say. Knowing now what I know, I feel more prepared to tackle the disease. But at the same time I sincerely hope we never have to go through this with her again. It has been frightening and frustrating and was simply awful to watch for a time. Dahlia is now about 99% better than she was the day that it started. Hopefully if it ever recurs, she will get back to her usual self as quickly.
Throughout Dahlia’s convalescence, I spent a lot of time on the internet doing research and talking to other folks who had been through this. Some of the sites I found that have been indispensable to me are as follows:
Vestibular Disease in Dogs Support Group. This Facebook group was the main thing that kept me going through the past two months. The people there have all been through it, some are still going through it. New people join all the time (and not just with dogs; there is no equivalent cat group on Facebook so some cat owners have joined this one — Hint to cat owners: Create one! I bet you’d be a great resource for cat owners who didn’t want to post in a dog group!). And many people (including myself) stick around after their dogs have recovered to cheer on and support those who are currently going through it.
Lassie, Get Help – Vestibular Disease: Leave a Light On. Besides just the blog post, reading the comments to the post were incredibly helpful. Just seeing that others had been through this and that their dogs were ok made me feel better about the whole thing.
Shake, Rattle, and Roll: Top 10 Things You Should Know About Vestibular Disease. This is a great, very informative PDF about the disease.
I hope these posts have been informative for anyone who has not experienced this disease and perhaps a comfort to those who have. Please stop in and comment if you wish to. Let us know about your dog’s (or cat’s or rabbit’s) experience with this disease and how they’re doing now!
Last week I wrote about the absolute scare Dahlia gave us when she woke up and couldn’t walk and the first week of her recovery from Vestibular disease (if you missed the post, you can read it here).
This has been a long, hard road for us. And especially for Dahlia, though she has fought it every step of the way. No one wanted to return to normal more than Dahlia did and her fighting spirit helped her near-constant progress.
The second week brought about many great changes for Dahlia, though there were many struggles. Early in the week, she was still refusing to go into my husband’s study, but he decided to bring her out back with Ben through the outside gate. She was so happy to be outside that she tried to chase Ben. She was wobbly. She was unsteady, but she wanted to play. It was the first time since this happened that we actually attempt anything playful. During that first really hard week, we weren’t sure she would ever play again. I remembered wondering if she’d play tug, if she’d ever bark. She was silent during that first week and while Dahlia has never been a noisy dog (see my post on teaching Dahlia to bark, among other things), she has learned to bark in excitement. Seeing her so quiet was hard.
The worst part of the week revolved around Christmas. Because we didn’t want to leave her out of the festivities, we opted to bring her over to my mother’s house (across town). which meant a car ride. As I mentioned in my earlier post, dogs with vestibular disease do not like being lifted off the ground. And as Dahlia had never really been picked up by us, it was especially difficult on her. She really wasn’t ready to attempt a jump up in the car, so we had to lift her in. This involved her rolling, almost falling out of the car, and at least three attempts before she was situated into the car. It also meant a difficult time getting her out. To reduce the stress, I stayed the night at my mother’s place with Dahlia while my husband went home with Ben. That meant two car rides instead of four. It was absolutely the right decision for Dahlia. Now you might ask Should you have taken her at all? That’s the question I still don’t have a proper answer for. Dahlia would not have wanted to be left behind and I was not comfortable at that point leaving her for several hours. So in the end, we decided the stress of getting her into the car was less than the worry about leaving her behind. And outside of the stress of getting her into and out of the car and being nervous coming down the hallway, Dahlia was comfortable at my mother’s place. She begged as usual and, a new thing: she was comfortable walking on the hardwood floors in my mother’s kitchen (anything to beg for food!).
And a Christmas miracle! When I came back from a walk with Ben, Dahlia got very excited and played tug with her Mama. It was the first time she’d shown any interest in toys or playing her favorite game! I will admit that I had tears in my eyes as I played with her (and I apologize for my voice in this video — you might want to listen on mute!).
You can pretty clearly see that her head is tilted to the side as we play. That’s not normal. That’s a result of the vestibular disease. It is something that may or may not resolve as the dog recovers.
By the end of the second week, we were taking up rugs in the house and Dahlia was getting around with little difficulty. Her head was still tilted awkwardly and I despaired of ever seeing her head actually straight again. She wasn’t going up stairs. She wasn’t going into my husband’s study. But she did, finally, sit. Which seems like such a small thing. But many dogs with vestibular disease have trouble with sitting. It takes some decent balance to sit down like that and for the first couple weeks, Dahlia either stood or laid down. But finally. Sit. It was awkward. But she did it. And she did it on her own!
And…perhaps the biggest change that week? Dahlia played tug with Ben. She was so excited to see me when I got home and they were both so worked up (and Ben brought me a toy, as he so often does), that she simply turned to Ben and grabbed the toy he had and a wonderful game of tug began!
The third week brought about even more changes. Dahlia started to pursue more play with Ben and more play with us. She was getting steadier on her feet and as she regained confidence, she started to act more like her usual self. When she was excited, she’d race down the stairs into my husband’s study after Ben. It’s like she simply forgot to be scared of them in the moment. And then she’d race outside and try to chase Ben. She was still pretty unsteady on her feet at faster speeds (and especially in the opening of the video where she’s trying to move on the small hill down into our yard). But as you can see in this video, while she’s still pretty wobbly and not giving huge amount of chase, none of it seems to faze her and she eggs Ben on by barking and spinning around to follow his path. (And Ben, as you can see, is having great fun with it, even if she isn’t giving chase!) You’ll also see her shake her head once and lose her balance. In the first week, she would have fallen over. But here she stays on her feet.
While the stairs to the second floor were still a bit beyond her, she was able to sleep in the downstairs guest room with me. Which was huge…for me! I’d been sleeping on the couch in the living room with her for nearly a month but she was finally comfortable walking into the more enclosed space of the guest room and so we moved into there. Sleep came easier for both of us, I think!
She also started to get up on the couch, though the couple of times she did it, she struggled a bit. We’re not sure what the issue was exactly. Either she couldn’t quite judge the distance or (and this may be more likely) her back legs weren’t quite able to push off properly. So she ultimately ended up flinging herself onto the couch and just laying wherever she ended up. It wasn’t the most comfortable thing for her and she only did it a few times before deciding she would rather stay on the floor.She started barking more during this week and especially on command. I wasn’t sure she’d ever get to do any of her old tricks and while some (like standing on her hind legs) may be forever beyond her balance abilities, barking was not. Here’s a short video, shot on day 20. You can see her head is still tilted funny, but she’s excited and happy to bark for the treats we received in the mail from a Secret Santa exchange. And then…she got naughty. I took Ben out for a walk one day and came back to find Dahlia had pulled a bag of pizzelles (a crispy Italian waffle cookie made with vanilla and, you guessed it, butter) off the counter and proceeded to tear it open and eat half the cookies before I got back. Instead of being upset over such a transgression (though I was sad over the loss of the cookies!), I was thrilled that she had enough of her in her to do it. In just three weeks, Dahlia had come so far. From not being able to walk to being able to play a bit with Ben, she had made great progress. But there was still more recovery ahead of her! Read the third and final part here.
I will never forget the morning of December 16. My husband woke up around 5:00am and discovered that Dahlia had vomited. No big deal, probably something she ate. He ran down to get some stuff to clean it up and I went to check on Dahlia.
And that was when I discovered her condition.
She couldn’t stand. She tried to, but her back legs wouldn’t get underneath her and she kept falling over.
Her head was moving strangely, like she was following something darting around the room.
I remember calling to my husband, shouting that there was something seriously wrong with Dahlia. I kept trying to get her up and she finally just lay there, head bopping around in the half light of our bedroom, not moving while I panicked.
It was a stroke. I was absolutely sure of it. My husband carried her downstairs. She was dead weight in his arms. He doesn’t even remember the trip downstairs or out to the car. He barely remembers the drive to the emergency vet.
But I do. I remember feeling both panicked and numb at the same time (how is such a thing even possible?). I remember being sure that we were losing our best girl, that the end of the road had come far too early (at only about 9 1/2) and far too quickly (she had been running around the yard playing hard with Ben just the night before). When we pulled up to the vet, I was sure we were about to get terrible news. They whisked her away from us to check her out before we had much of a chance to even think and we were taken to one of the rooms to wait for her return and the vet with her.
I don’t know how long we waited. It wasn’t very long, that much I do remember. The techs brought Dahlia in to us and laid her on a blanket. We both sat on the ground with her. I wanted to cry.
The vet came in shortly thereafter.
And she was smiling. I remember thinking Why are you smiling? We’re losing our best girl…
But we weren’t. And that was what the vet was there to tell us. As it turned out, Dahlia had something called Idiopathic Vestibular Disease (or IVD for short). Sometimes called “Old Dog” vestibular disease, IVD is an inflammation of the nerve going between the inner ear and the brain and is something that tends to strike older dogs (and cats). In most cases, there is no known cause (hence “idiopathic”), though it can sometimes be caused by an inner ear infection.
The symptoms are pretty clear-cut in most cases and come on rapidly:
- Rapid, uncontrollable eye movement (called “nystagmus”)
- Dizziness and loss of balance
- Staggering (some liken this to a “drunken sailor” walk)
- Circling in one direction when attempting to walk
- Head tilt
It was that first one I hadn’t noticed, likely because it was dark in the room, but it explains the strange head movements I saw. Her eyes were trying to orient her body to a room that was spinning rapidly around her.
My dog had vertigo. I’ve suffered from vertigo on occasion due to my hearing issues, but only for short periods. It’s intense. And it’s scary. But I know what’s going on when it happens. Dahlia didn’t. Her world had been turned upside down and ours with it.
But the good news is that while these episodes come on quickly, they also resolve…well…fairly quickly. Generally, the nystagmus should disappear within 3-4 days and at that point, you should see marked (though not complete) improvement.
I am, of course, the type of person who immediately went on the internet and looked up more information on the disease and tried to find progress reports for people’s dogs who had gone through this same thing. One thing I found was that a lot of people had had this happen to their dogs. One thing I didn’t find were very many progress reports. I felt a little bit like I was in the dark staggering about with my dog and hoping I was doing the right thing by her.
So I thought I would document Dahlia’s progress here on Team Unruly. I will admit up front that it is a month out from her original diagnosis and she is much improved, so never fear there! My girl has a strong will!
I won’t lie. The first week that Dahlia struggled through this disease was one of the hardest weeks of my life. We brought Dahlia home rather than leaving her at the vet’s for supportive care (which was an option and never feel bad if you take them up on it). They gave her some sub-q fluids, a shot of Cirenia (for nausea), and recommended 25mg of Meclizine (an over the counter medicine used for motion sickness) a day for the first few days. The hope was that she would feel a little less nauseous and therefore eat something while all of this was going on.
That first morning when she came home she didn’t seem too bad. I remember being relieved that she wasn’t “as bad” as everyone else’s dogs I’d seen videos of. She walked into the backyard. She was wobbly, but she could walk. She even managed to find a place to do her business. And when we went inside, she ate some hamburger. I remember being so happy that this was such a mild case and expected her to be back to her old self in a short bit. But that’s not how the disease goes. And in Dahlia’s case, it worsened over the course of that first day.
By that evening, she was at her lowest point. She could barely walk and when she did, she only walked in circles. She developed a dramatic head tilt (in fact, the whole front of her body looked tilted oddly). She couldn’t get down the stairs, so we had to carry her down to go outside. This was an absolute nightmare for Dahlia. And it is for many dogs with IVD. When the world is spinning, they orient themselves by having their feet firmly on the ground. Removing that ground made her panic. But she wouldn’t walk with a towel underneath her belly. And she was terrified to go down the stairs (and we were terrified she’d hurt herself if we let her try). So we had to carry her. She rolled in our arms. We came close to dropping her a few times as she panicked. But we got her outside each time and she was, thankfully, able to find a place to pee on her own.
Two days later, her eyes had slowed down, though there was still some movement, and that seemed to steady her a bit. She still couldn’t take the stairs to the outside and it was still an ordeal to get her out, but she wanted to go further once outside. Instead of just finding a spot to pee out front, she would get about two houses down and around the corner before laying down in exhaustion. Then we’d walk her back and carry her back inside.
Because our house is two stories and our bedroom is upstairs, I ended up sleeping on the couch in the living room with her on the floor near me. I didn’t sleep well those first nights. I was constantly on alert, woke up at every little movement. Dahlia, thankfully slept through the night. Or at least, she did for the first two nights.
At this point, she ended up with diarrhea, likely from all the stress (maybe from the medication), which just added to the difficulty. This was really the lowest point for us. I was exhausted and stressed out, afraid to sleep for fear she’d have another accident or try to get out or that she was overly stressed. It almost seems like a blur a few weeks out from it, like it happened in another lifetime.
Day 4 was when we finally turned a corner. Her eyes stopped moving and while they still seemed a little glassy and she was definitely not “herself,” she was fighting to get back to normal. She pulled her “stubborn Dahlia” trick of standing there and refusing to move unless I went the way she wanted to go. We walked around the whole block. And that afternoon she insisted on going down the steps to the outside on her own. I held onto her collar and stayed with her in case she slipped. And she did stumble a little, but she made it down the steps without having to be carried down and when we returned, she made it back up the steps with only my hand on her collar. Which was simply massive progress at this point. It meant that there was less stress on her and one person could get her out.
We also put down rugs all over the house because she wanted to move around more, wanted to visit us in the dining room or beg for scraps in the kitchen. We found all our old rugs and covered our hardwood floors with them.
It seems like such a small thing, really. Getting down the stairs on her own. Walking around the house. Things she’s done every day of her life. But this was what we were down to: celebrating those little tiny moments.
We had more to celebrate in the coming days. On the fifth day, her eyes lost the glassy look. She was more alert and with that came better balance. She walked further, she was interested in meeting other dogs and people, she squatted and peed with one leg in the air (see: the tiny moments!). She was able to control her speed better. The first few days of this consisted of walks where she would lurch forward, lose her balance, stagger, stop, and then lurch forward again. Day 5 showed a dog who could control her walking speed again. It meant the walks were slow, but she was able to stay walking at a steady pace.
On the sixth day, she went for a mile-long walk. We’ve always allowed her to make choices for walks and that was her choice that morning. I was at work all day and when I arrived home, Dahlia was at the door to greet me. She had not had the energy or interest in getting up to go to the door since the whole thing began so having her there meant so much.
The seventh day began with a vet trip to take care of the diarrhea issue as it wasn’t clearing up on its own, despite trying a bland diet. She wasn’t able to get into the car, so we had to walk her to the car and lift her in, which continued to be very difficult for her. She panicked and rolled and it took a few times to get her in and out. But the vet visit itself was good. They pronounced her in excellent health. She’d lost weight (thanks Ben!) and the vet said except for the head tilte and her being a little wobbly, there was nothing wrong with her. We got antibiotics and were on our way.
We noticed some more small changes around the house that day. She was willing to walk into the kitchen, which is a tile floor. She contemplated going down the steps into David’s study but for some reason they made her nervous, so she stood at the top and watched from there instead. And she was less hesitant getting around the house. Her head tilt was still rather pronounced, but we noticed that while it was quite dramatic inside still, outside her head tilt was getting better. This is something many have noticed in the community that I belong to for dogs with this particular disease. Some will struggle more inside, some more outside, but it’s not unusual to find that your dog seems much better in one place, but still struggles in a different place.
So at the end of that first week, things were better, but certainly nowhere near normal. I was still sleeping downstairs, still on the couch because she didn’t feel comfortable in the more enclosed guest room, and she still had a long way to go. But Dahlia has a strong will and she was working her way back to normal.
Read Part 2 here.