Published: 11 Sep 2020 | Last Updated: 04 Nov 2020 10:39:12

Aging dogs often show signs of Vestibular disease, often colloquially called “old dog syndrome”. Affected dogs typically show sudden loss of balance, collapsing, disorientation, head tilt and flickering of the eyes (nystagmus). These signs can be quite dramatic for owners and dogs alike, so this disease represents a serious welfare concern.

Owners of affected dogs often perceive their pet as having had a “stroke”.

Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College analysed the anonymised veterinary clinical records in the VetCompass programme from over 900,000 dogs across the UK. They found 759 dogs had received veterinary care for vestibular disease during the study. This is the largest study to explore the wider presentation of vestibular disease in dogs attending primary‐care practices and highlights several new findings on the disease’s occurrence.

Many of the breeds with increased risk were flat-faced, meaning that they had a ‘brachycephalic’ skull with a shortened head, flat face and short nose.

Compared with crossbreed dogs, French Bulldogs were 9 times more likely to develop vestibular disease, whilst Bulldogs were over 6 times more likely. These findings add to a growing body of evidence on high count of diseases that are predisposed in French Bulldogs and Bulldogs and that suggest these breeds have important welfare issues.  

The following breeds were also at increased risk compared with crossbreeds: King Charles spaniels (5 times), Cavalier King Charles spaniels (4 times) and Springer spaniels (3 times). The study confirms that the colloquial name “old dog syndrome” is quite apt for vestibular syndrome because this is a condition of older dogs: the average age of affected dogs was over 12 years old.  

Despite the dramatic clinical signs shown by dogs with vestibular disease, there is some good news from the study. Many of the affected dogs that are diagnosed with vestibular disease have a high chance of improving after an average of 4 days, as this study shows.  

The most common presenting signs seen in the affected dogs were head tilt, flickering of the eyes (nystagmus), and ataxia.  

Dr Sinziana Radulescu, Emergency and Critical Care Senior Resident at the RVC and lead author, said:  

“Owners of affected dogs can now be reassured by their veterinary surgeons about a good probability of improvement reported in both the previous literature as well as the current study.  Therefore, owners may be encouraged to trial treatment which is generally affordable and to monitor for signs of recovery which are often seen within a few days after diagnosis in a great proportion of cases.”  

The study showed that only few cases (3.6%) were referred to speciality centres, suggesting that in most cases the outcome is good, and referral is not necessary. Almost 12% of dogs, however, were euthanised on presentation, either due to veterinary recommendations or at the owner’s request.  

Dr Dan O’Neill, Senior Lecturer in Companion Animal Epidemiology at the RVC said:

“Dogs are an integral members of our families and owners want to provide the best of care for them as they age. We can now provide owners of older dogs with the latest statistics on survival and risk so that owners can make better decisions on the care of their aging family pets. Knowledge is power; the power to look after our older dogs better.”

This study is part of the ongoing VetCompass research programme at the Royal Veterinary College that aims to improve companion animal welfare and was supported by a Dogs Trust Canine Welfare Grant.  

This full paper is freely available open access at:  

You may also be interested in:

Top of page