What To Do If You Think Your Dog Has Had a Stroke
Last night, your dog was behaving the way he always does—begging for table scraps, scratching at the door to go out and barking at the neighbors. This morning, something is wrong. His head is tilted, and his eyes are moving strangely from side to side. On top of that, he seems to have trouble walking.
Needless to say, the alarm bells are going off and you wonder what could have happened so suddenly. So, you go to the internet and enter his symptoms. Could it be Vestibular Syndrome, or an ear infection? Maybe he's showing the first signs of arthritis, or perhaps he's been injured. Then you see a word that fills you with dread and concern: stroke.
How Do I Know If My Dog's Had a Stroke?
The simple fact is, you don't, not without seeing your veterinarian and having him tested. The symptoms of a stroke in dogs are similar to those for other medical conditions, like those noted above. And, unfortunately, whereas human beings are able to communicate what's going on with them, dogs can't.
What Is a Stroke?
According to Dr. Virginia Sinnott of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Angell Medical Center, a stroke is caused by the lack of blood flow to certain parts of the brain. As she explains:
"There are two mechanisms that cause strokes in dogs: an obstruction in blood vessels (ischemic strokes) which occur due to blood clots, tumor cells, clumps of platelets, bacteria and parasites; and bleeds in the brain (hemorrhagic strokes), which result from the rupture of blood vessels or clotting disorders."
What Are the Symptoms of a Stroke in Dogs?
The symptoms of a stroke are often subtle, and they vary depending on where in the brain the stroke occurred. They're so subtle that they're often overlooked or mistaken for symptoms of some other condition (another reason to have your dog tested by a competent veterinarian).
In general, however, dogs who have experienced a stroke will exhibit a variety of abnormal behaviors, like tilting their heads to one side or beginning to walk with apparent lack of normal coordination. In many instances, a stroke will lead to unusual movements of the eyes (such as a rotary movement, called nystagmus) or falling to one side. In some cases, a dog will lose consciousness as the result of a stroke or experience blindness.
One of the tell-tale signs of a stroke is the suddenness of the onset of these symptoms. Pet owners typically report that their dog was behaving completely normally one minute, then couldn't stand up.
What Causes Dogs to Have Strokes?
Strokes typically occur in older dogs and are often related to other medical conditions. For example, dogs with kidney or heart disease, hypertension, hypothyroidism, cancer and Cushing's disease (a condition in which your dog's body produces too much cortisol) are at greater risk of having a stroke.
Are Some Breeds More Susceptible to Strokes?
No breed is more likely to experience stroke. However, breeds which tend to have one or more of the underlying medical conditions noted above are at greater risk. For example, the King Charles Cavalier has a higher rate of heart disease than other breeds, which means a stroke is more likely.
What Should I Do If I Suspect My Dog Has Had a Stroke?
You should take him or her to your family veterinarian as soon as possible. Your vet can accurately diagnose what's wrong with your dog by performing a series of tests. Your vet will first rule out other causes of your dog's abnormal behavior. For example, she can perform tests on his heart (such as X-rays and an ECG) or do blood work and urinalysis. Once she's ruled out other possibilities, your vet can refer you to a specialist to further examine your dog's brain, typically using an MRI or a CAT scan.
If your vet determines that your dog has suffered a stroke, she will begin an effective course of treatment. If she finds that a blood clot caused the stroke, she might prescribe blood thinners. If hypertension is the problem, your vet might prescribe the best high blood pressure medications. She might also determine that certain forms of physical therapy are called for to help your dog regain normal mobility.
Seeing your dog in distress can be harder than experiencing the pain yourself. At South Boston Animal Hospital, we understand this and always go the extra mile to ensure your pet's health and safety. For more information about our services or to schedule an appointment, contact us today.
About Dr. Natalie Waggener
Dr. Natalie Waggener has 17 years of experience in emergency work and general practice in Rhode Island, Florida and Massachusetts. She has a special interest in dentistry, wellness care and rehabilitation therapy. She is currently licensed in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island.