Inner Ear Infection vs. a Brain Disorder

Question:
My dog is 4 years old, weighs 4 kilograms, no fever, his name is Dodo. Yesterday, he could not go straight but circling with his head tilt towards one side, but he eats well (we’ve been hand feeding him). Today is the second day of this syndrome. My family could notice small improvement as he could go straight in small distance, but we are now very worried and afraid of his situation. Can you tell us what is going wrong with our dog? We love him very much!

Dr. Nichol:
Dodo’s problem may be serious. Infections of the inner ear can cause a dog to walk in a circle with a head tilt. A stroke is another possibility, although these are more common in older dogs. There could also have been an injury.

To give you a specialist’s perspective I contacted veterinary neurologist Dr. Peter Brofman of the Animal Neurology and Imaging Center in Algodones, NM.  “Circling is generally caused by an abnormality in two different possible areas of the brain: the forebrain (cerebrum) or a problem in the vestibular (balance) system. The presence of the head tilt makes me most suspicious of vestibular abnormality. The vestibular system has two main components: 1. Peripheral (inner ear and vestibular nerve); 2. Central (brain centers which take the information from the peripheral component and send signals to the eyes, head, and body to maintain balance).”

“A complete neurological exam is needed to differentiate these. The underlying cause often requires further testing with blood work and possibly an MRI. It may be something relatively benign, such as an inner ear infection, or may be indicative of a more serious and progressive condition, called encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). I would recommend evaluation by your veterinarian and possibly a referral to a veterinary neurologist.”

The wait-and-see approach might seem reasonable, considering that Dodo is still eating but as many as two thirds of circling dogs suffer from middle ear infections. Dodo needs to see his doctor ASAP. If he’s lucky antibiotics may get the job done. In some cases a procedure to drain pus for the inner ear can be essential to a good recovery. If you wait and your gamble goes bad your fine dog could pay a lifelong price.