Why are My Dog's Eyes Darting Back and Forth?

Updated on June 7, 2014
What causes head tilt and eyes darting back and forth?
What causes head tilt and eyes darting back and forth? | Source

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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Questions & Answers


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      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 4 years ago from USA

        Crafty to the Core, try a second opinion, preferably try a specialized pet eye doctor. We had one come every week at the vet office I used to work for. He was highly experienced and diagnosed things our other vets had no clue about. You may have to drive a bit to find one, but sometimes they visit offices nearby. I would think they should take a culture around her eyes and check for bacteria/fungi/yeast. Conjunctivitis and corneal scratches are just two conditions they look like they tested for. Abnormal eyelashes, allergies, dry eye, breed-specific conditions are some other causes and there are many more!.

      • CraftytotheCore profile image

        CraftytotheCore 4 years ago

        I've never heard of this. Thank you for the information. I do have a dog with a different eye issue though. I've taken her to the vet twice. It cost $100 each visit. They put her on a cream solution that goes in the eye. At first they thought it was conjunctivitis. We had been to the dog park around a neufi who was suffering from it and I didn't know it until he left all kinds of gook on my dog's face from playing with her.

        But then the second time I took her in and they said they had no idea what was causing it. They made sure she had no scratches in her eye.

        The symptoms are goonk drainage, but not all the time, and then she loses hair around her eyes.

        Upon looking it up, I read that it can be a certain type of noncontagious mange that is hereditary. I'm not sure what to do about it anymore. Even the vet can't help. They told me not to worry about it, but she looks so pitiful with missing hair on her eyes. I have two other dogs and it has not affected them at all.

        I was hoping someone would write a hub about it.

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 4 years ago from USA

        Have you seen your vet for this? I hope your pal gets better, best wishes!

      • profile image

        lynn 4 years ago

        now my dog is doing like that..18 years old, this article really help understanding about nystagmus. mostly he recovered it but we don't know treatment exactly.

      • agilitymach profile image

        Kristin Kaldahl 5 years ago

        I had this very thing happen with my old American Eskimo. It indeed was vestibular disease. She mostly recovered with treatment and lived for another nine months or so. It is very scary, and stroke was also my first thought as it was accompanied by the inability to walk well.

        Good article with important information for dog owners. Voted up!!!

      • profile image

        DoItForHer 5 years ago

        Also hadn't heard of it. My dog will do the eye thing after spinning around, tho. lol

        Witnessing nystagmus is bothersome; it just ain't right. I can see why owners respond strongly to such a sign.

      • wetnosedogs profile image

        wetnosedogs 5 years ago from Alabama

        I wasn't aware of such a thing. Thanks for this hub. It pays to learn these things and hope I never really have to be on the lookout for such.