Why are My Dog's Eyes Darting Back and Forth?
Why are My Dog's Eyes Moving from Side to Side?
It may be one of the scariest moments dog owners may endure: suddenly they look at their dog and they notice an odd eye movement, almost as if the eyes have decided to do their own little dance. It comes as no surprise why these eye movements are often referred to as "dancing eyes".
At the vet hospital, I used to get these frantic calls from concerned dog owners, which were obviously aggravated by the fact the dog was also walking in circles, exhibiting a head tilt and losing its balance. The first thought of these dog owners was stroke, my first thought was dog vestibular disease. After watching the vet conduct a thorough anamnesis, this indeed, is what for the most part it turned to be. Most dogs recovered uneventfully within weeks, but for a few, the condition remained idiopathic (of unknown cause) leading to a permanent head tilt and much frustration in dog owners.
But what causes the dog's eyes to start doing their own little thing? Does the dog have any control over it? In the medical and veterinary world, there is a name for this condition: this involuntary eye movement is known as "nystagmus". Your dog cannot really do anything to control or stop this movement. The movements are more commonly side to side, whereas up and and down movements are a bit more rare.
So why are dog's eye going through uncontrolled movements as such? There are several potential causes. In order to understand this better, it helps to familiarize with the vestibular system. The vestibular system is a sensory system with receptors located in the inner ear. This system is responsible for several important functions: maintaining balance, coordinating eye movements and sensing the position of the head and body into space.
Nystagmus is not always abnormal. Indeed, most living mortals have a vestibular-ocular reflex. Basically, if you turn your head to the right, your eyes will move to the left, and if you turn your head to left, your eyes will move to the right. Abnormal nystagmus occurs when the head is motionless, yet the eyes are jerking back and forth.
In most cases, these darting of the eyes is therefore due to a problem within the vestibular system. Let's take a look at some potential causes for these worrisome symptoms...
A dog with nystagmus
Causes for Nystagmus in Dogs
So what is causing this dreaded darting back and forth movement of the eyes? The following list offers some causes.
*Note: the back and forth darting of the eyes is not always obvious or clearly visible. In some cases, you will have to hold your dog's head still and place yourself in front of a the dog for a careful assessment.
- Middle/Inner Ear Infection
Your dog's inner ear is closely connected to the brain through some auditory and vestibular nerves. The inner ear is also close to the dog's middle ear and external ear. An ear infection, may affect the middle ear, and if left untreated, may spread to the inner ear (labyrinthitis) which may affect the dog's vestibular system and its sense of balance. In such a case, you will usually see some signs of ear problems such as repeatedly scratching the ear, shaking the head and a bad odor and discharge in the ears. In severe cases, the dog's eardrum may rupture. Some dogs may also find it painful to open the mouth since even the smallest jaw movement may exacerbate the ear pain. When the vestibular system is affected, you also generally see nystagmus and other balance and neurological problems (staggering, head tilt, falling over).
- Vestibular Disease
This condition is often seen in older dogs, hence the name "Geriatric Canine Idiopathic Vestibular Syndrome. The term idiopathic, once again refers to "unknown cause". In this case, balance problems accompany the disease and darting of the eyes. Affected dogs may walk in circles, stagger, keep the head tilted and more. More can be read about this disease at this link: Dog Vestibular Disease
- Other Causes
Other potential causes for nystagmus include: head trauma, cancer of the inner ear or brain, hypothyroidism and encephalitis to name a few. Treatment varies depending on the cause.
Disclaimer; please consult with your vet if your dog is exhibiting nystagmus or other abnormal symptoms.
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.