Why are my dog’s eyes wobbly back and forth?

You relax with your dog and suddenly notice his eyes moving back and forth while his head is still. Although, as a dog caretaker, this can be scary, it’s important to know this is not normal and to contact your veterinarian.

What is nystagmus?

Nystagmus is a medical term used to describe when your dog’s eyes move quickly and uncontrollably. They can move up and down in a circle, but most commonly move left and right.

Movement can vary between slow and fast and occurs in both eyes. Eyes may shake more when looking in certain directions. Dogs with nystagmus may tilt or turn their heads to see better.

Nystagmus itself is not a disease, but rather a symptom of an underlying disease. There are many reasons why your dog may experience this symptom. One of the most common conditions is vestibular disease.

Vestibular disorders refer to sudden, non-progressive balance disturbances, usually with nystagmus. More common in older dogs. It is also known as old canine vestibular syndrome and canine idiopathic vestibular syndrome.

The vestibular system is responsible for maintaining normal balance, coordinating eye movements, and sensing the position of the head and body in space. The vestibular system has a central component located in the brain and peripheral components located in the inner and middle ears.

Other potential causes of nystagmus include:

  • Medium/internal infection
  • head trauma
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
  • neoplastic tumor
  • Inflammation and viral infections, such as canine distemper
  • exposure to toxins
  • stroke (reduced blood flow to the brain)

Depending on the underlying cause, you may not see any other symptoms, or you may see different accompanying symptoms. Dogs with nystagmus may also have other symptoms, including loss of balance. Head tilt, vomiting, walking in circles, falls/disorientation, standing with legs apart, your dog may be less active than usual.

Diagnosing the Cause of Your Dog’s Nystagmus

If your dog suddenly begins to exhibit any of the above symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately. Your veterinarian will first perform a comprehensive examination and take your dog’s medical history. Your veterinarian may want to do blood work, urinalysis, X-rays, EKG screens, or take blood pressure readings to check for any comorbidities.​​​

Unfortunately, since some causes of nystagmus occur as a result of brain injury/trauma, a definitive diagnosis can only be made with specialized imaging, such as an MRI or CAT scan in these cases. While these are available for veterinarians, owners often have to go to a referral hospital for them, and the cost can be prohibitive. If any underlying conditions are identified, medications to better control those conditions will be prescribed. Your veterinarian will also want to rule out a condition called idiopathic vestibular disease, which behaves similarly but is a completely different condition. Idiopathic is when the exact cause of the disease is unknown, but the disease, also known as old dog syndrome, affects the vestibular system of your dog’s inner ear. Dogs with vestibular disorders develop head tilt, hovering gaits, and may not want to eat their food anymore. These symptoms are strikingly similar to those of stroke, but idiopathic vestibular disease is more common in older dogs than true stroke.

Treat Your Dog’s Nystagmus

How best to treat your dog’s nystagmus depends entirely on what’s causing your dog’s nystagmus. The specific treatment will be based on the specific disease. If your dog’s nystagmus is caused by exposure to a chemical or toxin, removing the substance may stop the nystagmus. If there is an infection, your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics, and if your dog has hypothyroidism, medications and dietary changes may improve symptoms. For other causes, such as vestibular disorders, hospitalization and IV fluids may be required until the pet can eat and walk on its own. Clinical symptoms of vestibular disorders, including nystagmus, usually improve within one to two weeks. Most dogs make a full recovery within two to three weeks of supportive care, although some dogs have residual symptoms such as head tilt or mild “shaking” throughout their lives. If your dog fails to improve or gets worse, your veterinarian will perform advanced diagnostic tests.

Whatever the cause of your dog’s nystagmus, seeking immediate veterinary attention is vital to your dog’s health. Whether you’re seeing an emergency veterinarian or a regular veterinarian, they can help you figure out what’s causing your dog’s disturbing eye symptoms and how best to fix the problem.