Like their owners, dogs can be affected by a number of emergency health conditions, including strokes. While strokes are less common in dogs than they are in humans, they are equally as serious. Witnessing your beloved dog having a stroke is a frightening experience — and it’s important to know what to do if this occurs.
What is a Stroke?
According to the National Stroke Association, a stroke occurs when there is a disruption of blood flow to the brain, depriving brain cells of their oxygen supply. This often happens suddenly and without warning. The extent of the damage and its impact on the dog varies depending on the part of the brain affected.
In both humans and dogs, strokes are typically classified as either ischemic or hemorrhagic. “An ischemic stroke occurs when a vessel that supplies blood to a part of the brain becomes blocked, and damage to the brain tissue occurs,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates, a veterinarian who serves on the advisory board for Pet Life Today. “In a hemorrhagic stroke, a vessel in the brain bleeds, which leads to swelling and increased pressure,” she adds. Both types of stroke deprive the brain of blood and oxygen, which causes brain cells to die. Ischemic strokes are more common than hemorrhagic strokes in both people and dogs.
The severity of the stroke depends on how long the brain goes without blood flow. Dr. John McCue, a staff neurologist at the Animal Medical Center in New York City, says that when a dog has a massive, catastrophic stroke in a certain part of the brain, he may not bounce back because essential parts of the brain have been damaged. This can result in a lower quality of life and can sometimes be fatal. But the good news is that a stroke is not always life-altering. Long-term prognosis is good in dogs who are treated early and given the supportive care they need.
Dogs can also experience a Fibrocartilagenous Embolism (FCE), more commonly known as a “spinal stroke.” This occurs when a piece of an intervertebral disc — the cushion that separates each of the dog’s vertebrae — breaks off and causes an obstruction of one of the blood vessels in the spinal cord.
Dr. Gary Richter, owner and medical director of Montclair Veterinary Hospital in Oakland, California, explains that spinal strokes often cause partial or complete paralysis of one or more limbs, depending on where in the spinal cord they occur. He also points out that not all strokes are definitively diagnosed. “It usually takes an MRI to reach a definitive diagnosis — something that isn’t affordable for all pet owners,” he says. “There are probably a lot of ‘mini’ strokes that don’t get diagnosed.”
Signs of a Stroke
The signs of a stroke can be subtle and hard to notice. There are no warning signs to indicate that a stroke is about to happen, and Dr. Coates explains that a dog can go from “seemingly normal” to “severely impaired” very quickly. If left untreated, the problem can worsen in a short period of time. The longer treatment is put off, the greater the chance for permanent neurological damage.
Common signs that your dog might be having a stroke include:
- Loss of balance
- Head tilt
- Pacing, circling, or turning the wrong way when called
- Abnormal eye movements or facial expressions
- Impaired vision
- Loss of control over bladder and bowels
- Collapse, loss of consciousness
- Acute weakness and/or paralysis in one or more limbs
However, it is important to note that other conditions can cause similar signs. Idiopathic Vestibular Syndrome, in particular, is a common condition of older dogs that can mimic the signs of a stroke. The vestibular system is a delicate array of structures located in the inner ear and brain, which helps dogs maintain balance and coordinate the position of their head, eyes, and legs.
According to Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer of the American Kennel Club, any disruption to the vestibular system can cause symptoms such as head tilt, loss of balance, falling or rolling to one side, circling, trouble walking, and abnormal eye movements. Because disruptions to the inner ear can make dogs extremely dizzy, pet owners may also notice signs such as nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. Although these signs can be frightening, the good news is that most dogs recover from vestibular disease. Dr. Klein notes that while some may continue to have a head tilt, most dogs regain their sense of balance and do just fine.
What Causes a Stroke?
According to Dr. McCue, ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes occur most commonly in older dogs. Spinal strokes are more common in larger, more active breeds.
Strokes also tend to occur more often in dogs that have concurrent health problems. According to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), dogs are at greater risk for having a stroke if they are also affected by other illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, Cushing’s disease, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, among others. While your dog’s previous medical history may provide some clues, about 50 percent of canine strokes have no specific underlying cause.
Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent a stroke from happening in your dog, but keeping your pet healthy can make a stroke less likely. Regular veterinary checkups are especially important because early detection and treatment of underlying diseases can reduce your dog’s risk of having a stroke.
What Should I Do If My Dog Has a Stroke?
If you suspect your dog has had a stroke, seek veterinary care immediately. If your dog has dark red mucous membranes — in places such as his gums or inner eyelids — this can indicate a lack of oxygenation, according to AAHA. If this occurs, quick treatment is essential to restore proper blood flow. Dr. Richter also advises keeping your dog calm and preventing any injuries that could occur from falling or hitting his head.
Proper diagnosis of a stroke is crucial in order to ensure your dog receives appropriate treatment. Your veterinarian will perform a full physical examination and may recommend additional testing such as blood work, urinalysis, or X-rays to rule out other underlying problems. Because strokes are often related to heart disease, your veterinarian may recommend a full cardiac workup, which can include tests such as an electrocardiogram, chest X-rays, or cardiac ultrasound. In order to definitively diagnose a stroke, an MRI or CAT scan may be recommended to rule out other brain diseases that can cause similar clinical signs.
Will My Dog Recover?
Your dog’s ability to recover from a stroke depends on several factors, including the type of stroke, the severity, any underlying medical conditions, and how quickly your dog received appropriate treatment. Some dogs will begin to show signs of improvement in just a few weeks, while others may need more time. Unfortunately, some dogs will never fully recover from a stroke and, in some cases, the stroke or its associated complications can be fatal. But “with appropriate veterinary care and a dedicated owner,” Dr. Coates says, “many dogs can go on to live happily for quite a long period of time after having a stroke.”