Pet Talk: Super silly sideways Sandy

Jon Klingborg

One morning, Sandy woke up and her world was turning upside down. In fact, it was still turning as she dizzily circled her way across the living room. With Sandy's sideways-tilted head and her rapidly twitching eyes, she looked like a living Picasso painting.

Sandy's owner thought that the poor old dog must have had a stroke. To make matters worse, Sandy couldn't drink or eat out of her dishes -- each time she tried, her dizzy head would veer off and miss the bowl.

It wasn't long before owner and dog were at the veterinary hospital. The doctor took some time asking questions and looking over Sandy.

"Did this happen gradually or all-of-a-sudden?" he asked.

"It must have started suddenly, in the middle of the night. She was fine before bed."

"Does Sandy have a history of ear problems?"

"She's had a few ear infections, but nothing recent," replied the owner.

"Look at her eyes. See how they are moving very rapidly from side to side? That's called nystagmus, and it indicates that she has a problem in her balance center."

"Her balance center?"

"Yes, we all have them. The balance center is really located in two places -- the inner ear has the machinery for determining up, down, spinning and so on, and the brain is the processor to literally tell you "what's up."

"So, Sandy's problem is in her ear or her brain?"

"Exactly. Our job is to figure out where the problem is -- the machinery or the processor."

"Why does this happen?"

"There are a number of causes -- older dog are more susceptible to their balance centers misfiring, probably for the same reason that roller coasters are a lot less fun as we get older; our balance centers change over time and we don't recover from dizziness like we once did."

"You mean, Sandy didn't have a stroke?"

"I don't think so. When dogs have had a stroke, one side of the face is very relaxed and the other side is normal. As we look at Sandy's face, her face seems normal. It looks like her brain is fine and we need to focus on the ears."

The doctor used the scope to peer into both of the dizzy dog's ears. "Sometimes the balance center is disrupted by a foxtail or bad ear infection. Her ears look good, so she probably has the balance center problems we see in older dogs -- cleverly called Older Dog Vestibular Syndrome."

"So, Sandy's going to be fine?"

"Yes, it will take Sandy a few weeks to recover, though she may always have a slightly tilted head."

Before she left, Sandy tried to lick my face in gratitude, but her tongue veered off to the right. "Maybe next time, you'll get me."

Dr. Jon Klingborg is a veterinarian associated with Valley Animal Hospital. He may be contacted at