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The Strange Results When Pets Lose Their Sense Of Place

When injury or sickness upset the vestibular system, pets can exhibit strange behavior because they no longer have a correct sense of place.

Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM
Posted: July 21, 2014, 4 a.m. EDT

Have you ever visited a carnival and gone on a fast-moving, spinning ride? Do you remember how you felt when you got off of it? If you are like me, you probably reached for the closest handrail and waited for the world to stop spinning! This is due to the vestibular system, which includes a special sensory structure located within the inner ear. Our pets have a similar system that helps control balance. Often we are not aware of how important it is until it becomes diseased or develops lesions.

The vestibular system works with other sensory systems such as vision to determine the position of the body when it is at rest and when it is in motion. One part of the vestibular system known as the semicircular canals contains thick fluid that moves when the body moves. This movement of fluid is detected by sensory cells that relay the information to the brain telling it that the body is in motion.

The other part of the vestibular system known as the otolithic organs contains very small stone-like particles suspended in a thick fluid. Gravity pulls on these stones that then fall onto sensory cells that relay information about the position of the body (i.e., upright, on its side, etc.). These areas also direct eye movements, which allow our eyes to automatically rotate and keep an object in focus when we turn our heads.

When disease happens, there is a disconnection between what the body is actually doing and what signals are being sent to the brain or how the brain is interpreting those signals.

I have treated disease of the vestibular system in many species of animals, including ferrets, guinea pigs, degus andhamsters, but I tend to diagnose problems more often in rabbits. Clinically, these animals can present with a wide range of symptoms, including head tilt, circling, rolling and eyes that dart side-to-side (nystagmus). For these animals, there is major miscommunication between the vestibular system and the brain.

rabbit with head tilt
© Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM
This rabbit is suffering from head tilt as a result of problems with his vestibular system.

Disease can be the result of damage to either the sensory organs within the inner ear or to the areas of the brain receiving input from those organs. This can happen for a variety of reasons including bacterial infection, parasitic infection (i.e., Encephalitozoon cuniculi), cancer, toxins or trauma. Diagnostic tests such as blood panels and skull radiographs are often recommended in these cases. Advanced imaging such as computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be necessary for detecting lesions in the central nervous system.

In order to treat vestibular disease, a veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics and/or anti-parasitics, anti-nausea medications or anti-inflammatories. Supportive care such as syringe feeding may be necessary if the pet is not eating. Depending on the severity of signs, animals sometimes require confinement to a small, well-padded area to prevent traumatizing themselves if they are rolling.

The outcome of such cases varies widely — some animals make a full recovery, some make a partial recovery, and a small portion never recover from the damage. In the unlucky cases that never recover, the quality of life of the pet must be considered.

Note: This article is meant for educational purposes only and in no way represents any particular individual or case. It is not for diagnostic purposes. If your pet is sick, please take him or her to a veterinarian.

See all of Dr. Materi's blogs, click here>>

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And check out:
Guinea Pig With Head Tilt And Mites, click here>>
What Causes Head Tilt In Ferrets?, click here>>
Signs Of Illness In Hamsters And Possible Causes, click here>>

Posted: July 21, 2014, 4 a.m. EDT

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