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Old-Dog Vestibular Disease vs Stroke: Knowing The Difference

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Suddenly seeing your dog topple over, walk in circles, or not be able to control their bladder is terrifying and causes many owners to immediately jump to the conclusion their dog has had a stroke.

Old dog vestibular disease vs strokes are different but have many of the same symptoms.

Fortunately, old-dog vestibular disease is much less severe than a stroke and typically resolves itself in a couple of days to a week or two.

Unfortunately, a stroke is much more serious, and there is a short window of time to get them to a vet before permanent damage sets in.

Vestibular disease affects the inner ear and vestibular nerve, which is the part of the body that controls balance.

A stroke affects the brain directly. Even though they affect different parts of the body, they present with similar symptoms.

In this article, we will discuss the differences between old-dog vestibular disease and a stroke, how it presents in dogs, what the different causes are, and how it will affect your dog in the long run.

Vestibular Disease vs Stroke - black dog with gray beard staring into distance.

Main Differences Between Old-Dog Vestibular Disease vs. Stroke

The main differences between old-dog vestibular disease and a stroke are:

  • Old-dog vestibular disease generally affects only older dogs, whereas a stroke can affect dogs of any age.
  • Old-dog vestibular disease has many causes, whereas a stroke only has two causes.
  • Old-dog vestibular disease resolves itself within a few days, whereas a stroke can be permanent.
  • Old-dog vestibular disease is not fatal, whereas a stroke can be fatal.

Introduction: Old-Dog Vestibular Disease vs. Stroke

Before we get into the differences between the two conditions, it is important to first define and understand each condition separately.

Old-Dog Vestibular Disease

All dogs have a vestibular system. The vestibular system controls balance and orientation.

Basically, it is what keeps your dog upright and walking in a straight line. It does this by keeping your dog’s head stable and level and stabilizing the eyes as your dog looks around.

Vestibular disease affects the vestibular nerve by causing it to become inflamed.

In turn, this can prevent it from properly sending messages to your dog’s body to keep them balanced and moving forward smoothly.


A stroke directly affects the brain. When a dog has a stroke, it is caused by either a restriction of blood to a part of the brain or a blood vessel bursting in the brain.

Depending on where exactly the stroke happens in the brain, different symptoms may occur.

Shared Symptoms

Old-dog vestibular disease and strokes share similar physical symptoms, which is why they can be mistaken for each other.

The following can be signs of both old-dog vestibular disease and stroke:

  • Walking in tight circles in the same direction
  • Tilting of the head to one side (in a stroke, the tilt will be to the side of the brain that has had the stroke)
  • Unequal pupils (more common with stroke)
  • Weakness on one side of the body
  • Paralysis of one or more legs
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control
  • Collapsing (more common with stroke)
  • Vertigo
  • Strange eye movement from side to side
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Inability to jump or walk in a straight line

Old-Dog Vestibular Disease vs. Stroke: Age

Different diseases affect animals and humans at different ages.

For example, it is more common for children to get chicken pox, and it is more common for adults to get Alzheimer’s disease.

Let’s take a closer look at how age affects your dog’s chances of having old-dog vestibular disease or a stroke.

Old Dog Vestibular Disease v Stroke - Lab down in the leaves.

Old-Dog Vestibular Disease

Vestibular disease is nicknamed “old-dog” vestibular disease because it is far more common in older dogs.

As dogs age, their nerve health declines, and it becomes more likely for a disease that affects the nerves negatively (as old-dog vestibular disease does) to develop.

However, there are also some cases of younger dogs developing vestibular disease due to other underlying health issues.


Strokes can happen at any age to any breed of dog. As the causes of strokes are not linked to the deterioration of the body, they can happen at all ages.

However, if an elderly dog is ill, they are generally more susceptible to having a stroke.

Old-Dog Vestibular Disease vs. Stroke: Causes

The causes of old-dog vestibular disease and strokes are different.

Identifying the cause may help you identify whether they are suffering from old-dog vestibular disease or the aftereffects of a stroke, which will help you decide on a course of action.

Old-Dog Vestibular Disease

Vets are not 100% certain of the immediate cause of old-dog vestibular disease.

However, there are many underlying causes that contribute to old-dog vestibular disease developing.

These underlying causes all inflame the vestibular nerve in some way. These causes include:

  • Ear infections
  • Viral infections that cause system-wide inflammation
  • Medications that include ear toxicities
  • Perforated, damaged, or burst eardrums
  • Trauma to the ear or head
  • Injuries to the ear or head

If there is no clear cause of the old-dog vestibular disease, then it is called idiopathic vestibular disease.


Strokes in dogs have two main causes.

One cause is a blockage, such as a clot or piece of cartilage, that passes through a blood vessel in the brain, which deprives that part of the brain of oxygen. This is called an ischemic stroke.

Strokes can also be caused by a blood vessel bursting in the brain, which then causes the brain to bleed.

This puts excess pressure on the brain and causes the deficiencies that present as the symptoms. This is called a hemorrhagic stroke.

There are also certain factors that heighten the risk of a dog suffering a stroke, such as:

Old-Dog Vestibular Disease vs. Stroke: Duration

Stroke and old-dog vestibular disease both have an immediate onset, so their symptoms present fairly quickly.

However, their symptoms or lingering effects can last for very different amounts of time.

Old-Dog Vestibular Disease

If your dog suffers from idiopathic old-dog vestibular disease and you are unsure of what the cause is, then resolving the issue can take longer.

However, if you have identified the underlying cause, such as an ear infection or trauma, then you will be able to treat it and the symptoms will disappear quickly.

If the cause is not serious, the symptoms of the old-dog vestibular disease will generally disappear on their own in a few days to two weeks.

On rare occasions, some of the symptoms of old-dog vestibular disease will linger, such as a slight head tilt or weakness on one side of the body.


The duration of the symptoms of a stroke mainly depends on the severity of the stroke and how much damage has been done to the brain.

If the stroke is minor and you are able to get your dog treatment as soon as possible, the symptoms should go away immediately or in a day or two.

However, if it is a severe stroke, then the symptoms may be permanent.

Symptoms such as partial or full paralysis, incontinence, or blindness may be permanent and decrease your dog’s quality of life.

Old-Dog Vestibular Disease vs. Stroke: Severity

Whether your dog suffers from old-dog vestibular disease or a stroke, the chance of recurrence is high, especially if they are elderly or the root cause is not correctly addressed.

However, the severity of old-dog vestibular disease compared to a stroke is relatively minimal.

Old-Dog Vestibular Disease

Fortunately, there is rarely any lasting damage from old-dog vestibular disease.

The real danger is allowing a dog with these symptoms around pools, large drops, or stairs without supervision, as they can drown or fall and hurt themselves easily.


Strokes are very serious as they can be fatal. The severity of the stroke depends on how much of the brain is damaged by the lack of oxygen or the bleeding.

Getting your dog to the vet as soon as you notice symptoms means they will get treatment quickly.

Getting treatment quickly to restore blood flow and oxygenation to the brain will help reduce the chance of lasting effects of the stroke.

Unfortunately, we’ve had to deal with the symptoms of old dog vestibular disease in one of our rescue dogs.

Our Border Collie Lab mix, Maffy was diagnosed with a stroke. We came home and he was walking around in circles, falling down, and was disoriented in confused.

However, after a few days, he was back to his normal self. He was definitely considered an “old dog” at this time and in hindsight, I think he had old dog vestibular disease and not a stroke.

FAQs About Old-Dog Vestibular Disease vs. Stroke

How is a stroke diagnosed?

A vet will diagnose a stroke by doing a neurological exam, evaluating your dog’s symptoms, and possibly by doing an MRI or a CT scan to identify where the clot or brain bleed has occurred in the brain.

What is a spinal stroke?

A fibrocartilaginous embolus, also known as an FCE or a spinal stroke, is not the same as a brain stroke. However, it can be as alarming as a brain stroke.

If a piece of fibrocartilage gets into the bloodstream and blocks a vessel in the spine, it prevents oxygen from getting to that part of the spine, which causes paralysis in one or more legs.

Barking Off: Old-Dog Vestibular Disease vs. Stroke

The sudden tilted head, tight circling, partial paralysis, loss of bladder control, or collapse of your dog would cause any pet owner serious concern.

However, knowing the differences between old-dog vestibular disease and a stroke is important.

Here is a quick recap of the main differences between vestibular disease vs. stroke:

  • Old-dog vestibular disease generally affects only older dogs, whereas a stroke can affect dogs of any age.
  • Old-dog vestibular disease has many causes, whereas a stroke only has two causes.
  • Old-dog vestibular disease resolves itself within a few days, whereas a stroke can be permanent.
  • Old-dog vestibular disease is not fatal, whereas a stroke can be fatal.

Has your dog ever been diagnosed with old dog vestibular disease or a stroke?

Tell us about your experiences in the comment section below.

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One Comment

  1. My 14 yr old Aussie Levi was initially diagnosed w/ ODS. He had a minor ear infection at the time his episode occurred. It’s been a couple of months at this point and he’s improved slightly but not much. He still has problems walking and balancing, and when I hand him a treat he seems to not be able to find it even tho I’m holding it for him. I think the vet was thrown off because of the ear infection since its known to cause ODS. I think he as actually had a stroke. I know the dog better than anyone…he’s been with me for 14 years everyday and I can’t tell if he’s suffering or if he’s just different now from the stroke. I promised him when he was a pup that I’d never let him suffer and always make sure he was ok and had his dignity. Now I don’t know what to do. He still smiles when he sees me but he can’t get around like he used to and it seems like everything is a struggle for him. I feel awful thinking about putting him down, but also think not doing that is me being selfish cause I want him around. Main thing is I have got to figure out if he’s suffering. If so I gotta put a stop to it. If anyone has been in this situation and has advice I’m all ears cause I’m stuck not knowing what to do.

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