Nystagmus (flickering eye movements) in a dog

Isolated dog

Overview

  • Nystagmus is the word we use to describe flickering eye movements.
  • In certain circumstances, flickering eye movements are normal i.e. when your dog is looking out the car window or when their head is moved from side to side, but your dog’s eyes should not flicker when their head is still.
  • If your dog has develop nystagmus, it’s likely that they have a condition called ‘vestibular disease’ (a problem inside their ear or brain).
  • Contact your vet for a same day appointment if your dog has developed nystagmus.

Nystagmus explained

Nystagmus is the word we use to describe flickering eye movements. In certain circumstances, flickering eye movements are normal i.e. when your dog is looking out the car window or when their head is moved from side to side but your dog’s eyes should not flicker when their head is still. Nystagmus is nearly always caused by a problem inside the ear or brain (otherwise known as vestibular disease).

Types of nystagmus

There are a few different types of nystagmus:

Horizontal nystagmus

Horizontal nystagmus (side-to-side flickering) is caused by a problem in the ear or brain.

Vertical nystagmus

Vertical nystagmus (up-down flickering) is caused by a problem in the brain.

Pendular nystagmus

Pendular nystagmus (circular movements) is caused by a problem in the ear or brain.

Illustration showing types of nystagmus

There are a few types of nystagmus. Click image to enlarge.

Causes of nystagmus

Vestibular disease. Nystagmus is nearly always caused by a problem inside the ear or brain called vestibular disease, more specifically, it’s most commonly caused by a problem called ‘old dog vestibular disease’.

Congenital nystagmus. Sometimes puppies are born with nystagmus, this is called ‘congenital nystagmus’ – puppies with congenital nystagmus are often blind or have other eye problems.

Blindness. Very occasionally, nystagmus will develop in a dog that has gone blind.

What else to look out for

If your dog develops nystagmus, they may also have other symptoms such as:

  • Loss of balance
  • Head tilt
  • A droopy face
  • Vomiting
  • Walking in circles
  • Falling over/disorientation
  • Standing with their legs wide apart.

When to contact your vet

Contact your vet for a same day appointment if your dog has developed nystagmus. They will need an urgent appointment if they are falling over or vomiting. You know your dog best. Contact your vet if you are concerned.

Published: August 2019

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Written by vets and vet nurses. This advice is for UK pets only.

Illustrations by Samantha Elmhurst