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Dog Falling Over And Losing Balance: My Dog Is Acting Drunk And Wobbly, Unsteady, And Stumbling

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Last Updated: April 10, 2024 | 8 min read | 9 Comments

This content was reviewed by veterinarian Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM.

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Black and white dog laying on side on the ground.

It can be very scary if your dog loses balance, seems unsteady, or cannot walk straight. A dog falling over is a cause for concern, and it helps to be prepared and aware of any issues. Here, I explore several reasons why this happens and the top concerns about dogs falling over and losing balance.

Note: if your dog can’t get up, that’s an entirely separate issue that we’ve written about to help you understand what may be going on with your dog.

8 Reasons Dogs Become Wobbly And Lose Balance

When your dog is having trouble keeping balance, walking sideways, falling over, being wobbly, or acting drunk, it is all concerning for us dog parents. A few different things can cause a dog to have trouble walking and become disoriented.

Below, I detail some of the most common issues and when you need to talk to the vet. Your dog suddenly having trouble walking, falling over, or seeming wobbly and off balance is always something you must investigate further.

1. Vestibular Disease In Dogs

Does your dog walk around as though they are drunk? Many pet parents ask the following questions if they notice their dog is having trouble walking straight:

  1. Why is my dog acting drunk?
  2. Why is my dog disoriented?
  3. Why is my dog off balance?
  4. My dog is disoriented, unbalanced, and confused; why?
  5. Why is my dog stumbling to one side?
  6. Why is my dog falling over and throwing up?
  7. Why is my senior dog falling over?

All of these questions can lead to the same diagnosis: vestibular disease.

Vestibular disease is the sudden, non-progressive disturbance of balance. The vestibular system is responsible for maintaining balance in your dog. There are two parts to the vestibular system: the peripheral portion (inner and middle ear) and the central portion (brain).

Vestibular disease is commonly diagnosed in old dogs and is also referred to as old dog syndrome and canine idiopathic vestibular syndrome. So, if you have an old dog falling down, this could be the cause.

Symptoms

Many pet parents have described symptoms as:

  1. A dog falling over as if drunk or acting drunk and wobbly
  2. Unsteady on feet suddenly, or the dog is wobbly and off-balance
  3. Dog walks in circles and is disoriented, or keeps walking in circles and falling over
  4. Falling to one side
  5. Dog walking sideways
  6. Dog losing balance in hind legs
  7. Dog stumbling on front legs

From a medical standpoint, symptoms of vestibular disease include:

  1. Abnormal eye movements
  2. Disorientation
  3. Head tilt
  4. Hesitant to stand or walk
  5. Nausea
  6. Sudden loss of balance
  7. Vomiting

Why Is My Dog Wobbly And Off Balance All Of A Sudden?

If you notice your dog suddenly disoriented, wobbly, and off balance, it is essential that you reach out to the vet as soon as possible. While some causes of this behavior are minor, most indicate something else going on. It is not likely something you can remedy at home, and to ensure your pet’s best chance of recovering, you should enlist help right away.

2. Stroke

Dog laying in the grass being pet on head.

Some pet parents ask:

  1. Why is my dog falling over and peeing? 
  2. Why is my dog throwing up and falling over?

Did you know that loss of control over the bladder and bowels after falling over and a dog falling over and throwing up can both be symptoms of a stroke? Additional dog stroke symptoms include:

  1. Loss of balance
  2. Collapsing
  3. Loss of consciousness
  4. Head tilt
  5. Abnormal eye movement
  6. Impaired vision
  7. Vomiting
  8. Acute weakness or paralysis in one or more limbs
  9. Pacing, circling, or turning the wrong way when called

A stroke occurs when there’s a sudden interruption of blood flow to the brain. Dog strokes can happen without warning. If you think your dog has experienced a stroke, seek veterinary care immediately.

3. Syncope In Dogs

My dog coughs and falls over; what’s wrong with him? If your dog coughs and then falls over, your dog may be experiencing a syncope (the medical term for fainting).

Syncope occurs when a dog’s brain is being deprived of energy, usually oxygen or glucose. Most syncopal events last only a short time, from as little as a few seconds to several minutes.

Syncope isn’t a specific disease that dogs are diagnosed with. Rather, it’s a symptom of another problem, such as an abnormal heart rhythm.

Syncope and seizures can be commonly confused with one another. However, if coughing triggers the event, it’s a good sign that your dog is experiencing a syncope and not a seizure.

It’s common for dogs that experience syncopal episodes to experience more in the future, and chances are they could be more severe than the previous ones.

It’s important to determine your dog’s underlying cause for the cough so that you can address the syncope issue appropriately. Contact your vet to discuss potential underlying issues.

4. Seizure

Is your dog shaking and falling over or losing balance and shaking? Does your dog stiffen up and fall over? This might be your dog experiencing a type of seizure.

Seizures can manifest differently for various dogs, so your dog may not experience what you generally attribute as being a sign of a seizure. However, suddenly stiffening up and falling over or your dog falling over and shaking could be due to a seizure. Learn more about dog seizures and what causes them in our guide.

If you think your dog has experienced a seizure, call your veterinarian.

5. Inner Ear Infection

French Bulldog getting ear examined at vet.

If your dog is experiencing a loss of balance, there is a possibility they may have an inner ear infection or otitis interna. Inner ear infections cause other symptoms such as walking in circles, head shaking, ear scratching, and flicking the eyes. Your dog may also experience redness, swelling, odor, or discharge around the ear. Inner ear infections are often bacterial, though they can be caused by fungus. Fungal ear infections are also called yeast infections.

Along with a loss of balance, you may also notice other signs in your dog, such as a reluctance to chew or pain in their mouth. Excessive drooling, discharge from the eye, and droopy eyelids are also possible due to the proximity to the optical nerve and the inner ear.

A dog with an inner ear infection may tilt their head repeatedly towards the infected side and may even start to lean, roll, or lean to the side of the infected ear. They may begin to walk in circles and may have hearing trouble. It is also possible for dogs to develop active otitis interna in both ears.

You will need to take your pup to the vet to determine if they have a bacterial or fungal infection. Then, the vet will likely prescribe medication.

6. Brain Inflammation

Brain inflammation is also called encephalitis. Many different issues can trigger it. Inflammatory disease can affect the essential nervous system, which impacts your dog’s brain and spinal cord function. Encephalitis can be infectious or idiopathic. Parasites, fungal infections, or tick-borne diseases can trigger encephalitis. Idiopathic encephalitis refers to brain swelling of unknown cause. Some of the clinical signs of encephalitis include seizures, behavior changes, blindness, depression, walking in a circle, imbalance, head tilting, facial paralysis, and tremors.

7. Ataxia

Ataxia is a term that refers to incoordination within your dog’s nervous system. It can impact their entire body, the head, or the legs. Ataxia can impact different brain areas, and the most common sign of it is a dog becoming unsteady on their feet and developing an abnormal gait. Spinal cord, cerebellar, and vestibular are three common kinds of ataxia.

Spinal Cord Ataxia

Like us, your dog’s body relies heavily on the spinal cord to carry the body and support essential functions. A dog staggering and falling over or walking sideways may suffer from a spinal cord issue. Sensory ataxia happens if the spinal cord is compressed. Compression can be a result of a bulging intervertebral disc, a tumor, a spinal cord lesion, or an injury.

Along with staggering, losing balance, and falling over, your pup may experience nausea, vomiting, a head tilt, flicking their eyes side to side, or walking in circles. A loss of spinal cord tissue, tumors, infection, trauma, narrowing of the spinal canal, or developmental abnormalities, among other issues, can trigger spinal cord ataxia.

Cerebellar Ataxia

A dog who is unsteady, staggering, losing coordination, and falling over may be suffering from cerebellar ataxia. Cerebellar ataxia can result from any disease that impacts the cerebellum, including brain tumors, strokes, and distemper. The cerebellum controls fine motor movement; any defect or issue in this area can affect movement. Dogs with cerebellar ataxia often have head tremors or head shaking and have incredibly exaggerated movements. It can be brought on by degenerative changes in the brain, a brain tumor, infection, or even toxicity to certain antibiotics, including Metronidazole.

Vestibular Ataxia

Vestibular ataxia in dogs causes dogs to walk as if they were drunk, falling over on one side. Sometimes, vestibular ataxia can be so severe that your dog may not fully walk. They will simply roll around but never get fully upright. Vestibular disease often affects older dogs and is generally idiopathic. This means it is sudden and nonprogressive. It can affect dogs of all ages and can be caused by a variety of things, including ear infections, disease, brain tumors, trauma, hypothyroidism, inflammation, and Metronidazole toxicity.

8. Head Trauma

Head trauma requires a visit to the vet right away. You may notice your dog walking around in circles, falling down, or losing control of their body’s movements. This is a sign of a dysfunction in the brain, affecting motor control.

Traumatic brain injury can come from head trauma, and if it is not treated, it can be very serious and even fatal. If your dog has experienced a head trauma or you suspect one, you should take them to the emergency vet right away.

Frequently Asked Questions

I know there are still plenty of questions. Below, I cover a few of the most frequently asked questions about dogs falling over, being off-balance, and having trouble walking. If I missed yours, let me know in the comments.

Why Is My Dog Falling Down Stairs?

My dog keeps falling down the stairs; why? If your dog falls off stairs regularly, it could be something as simple as him not having enough grip. However, if you have carpeted stairs, this probably isn’t the case for you.

If your dog keeps falling down the stairs, it may not be a stair issue. It may be a health issue. Some medical issues that make it difficult for dogs to walk up and down the stairs include:

Next time your dog goes up or down the stairs, look closely for any additional clues. For example:

  • A dog who hops up the stairs may have a hip issue
  • A dog who stumbles down the stairs may have joint issues, such as arthritis
  • A dog who leans against the wall while going up or down the stairs may have a neurological issue

If you think your dog’s difficulty with stairs is due to a health issue, you should schedule a vet appointment as soon as possible. If caught early, many of these illnesses can be manageable and increase your dog’s quality of life.

Why Is My Dog With Cushing’s Falling Down?

Dogs suffering from Cushing’s disease may be more tired or lethargic, leading to them falling down more. If you notice your dog with Cushing’s is falling down, you should notify your vet immediately. 

Why Is My Dog Walking Sideways And Falling Over?

If your dog has started to walk sideways, it’s best to have him evaluated by a veterinarian for an underlying condition. Your dog may be walking sideways due to injury, hip dysplasia, or vestibular disease.

Should I Get Pet Insurance?

Does reading this article cause you concern about your dog’s future health? Maybe he’s as fit as a fiddle right now, but did you know dogs are more likely to experience health issues as they age?

That’s why we recommend purchasing pet insurance while your dog is young, so you can have coverage for as many ailments as possible without worrying about pre-existing conditions being excluded from your coverage.

To learn more about pet insurance and determine whether it’s a good option for you, read our Pet Insurance 101 guide.

Keeping Your Dog Healthy

A nutritious diet, plenty of exercise, and regular veterinary care are important to keeping our pets healthy as long as possible. Preventative care is pivotal in identifying issues early and getting treatment. Learn more about dog life expectancy here and some tips on how to care for your senior dog.

Why Trust Canine Journal?

Danielle has shared a special bond with dogs since she was a child. She has over 30 years of pet care experience and has worked as a professional researcher for many years. She spends countless hours examining the latest science and data-backed research on pet care, health, nutrition, and training developments with the enthusiastic help of her two dogs, Daisy and Falkor. She works with a professional and experienced team to bring our readers the best, most accurate, and up-to-date information.

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The information provided through this website should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease; it is not intended to offer any legal opinion or advice or a substitute for professional safety advice or professional care. Please consult your health care provider, attorney, or product manual for professional advice. Products and services reviewed are provided by third parties; we are not responsible in any way for them, nor do we guarantee their functionality, utility, safety, or reliability. Our content is for educational purposes only.

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