Strokes In Dogs: A Complete Guide
While you may have never thought about the possibility of your pet having a stroke, they’re a somewhat common health condition. In this article, we’ll explain the underlying causes of strokes, how to diagnose them, and what to do if your dog has been affected by one.
What Are Strokes In Dogs?
Strokes are a fairly common problem among humans, with thousands of lives being lost to them every year. Until recently, however, it was thought that only a small percentage of cats and dogs were affected by strokes. Now, thanks to advances in technology and new tests being conducted, we realize that strokes in pets are much more common than we used to believe.
A stroke, also known as a cerebrovascular accident, occurs when the blood supply to an animal’s brain is lower than it should be. Since the brain is one of the most important, if not the most important, organ in your pet’s body, this is a serious and life-threatening issue. The brain requires a constant flow of nutrients and oxygen to function properly, both of which it receives from blood.
There are three types of strokes that can occur in dogs. The first, and most common, is an ischemic stroke, which is caused by an unexpected loss of blood to your dog’s brain. The second is a hemorrhagic stroke, which means that there is internal bleeding in your pet’s brain, usually caused by a burst blood vessel. And the third kind is a fibrocartilaginous embolism, which occurs when a disk piece of your dog’s back breaks free and makes its way into their spinal cord.
What Causes Strokes In Dogs?
An embolus stroke can be caused by other items moving through your pet’s bloodstream, like fatty debris or loose cartilage. If your pet is having a hemorrhagic stroke, then the cause is just the opposite; your dog’s blood isn’t clotting as it should, and is instead of letting blood bleed into their brain. The brain is dependent on a consistent blood flow more than just about any other organ. It needs blood to deliver nutrients and oxygen, as well as to remove waste. Strokes are caused when anything interrupts or blocks the blood flow to your pet’s brain. The most common reasons for blockage are thrombosis and embolus. Thrombosis means that there is blood coagulation blocking the flow of blood in what area of an artery, whereas an embolus means that there is a free-floating blood clot in your pet’s artery.
The following are usually behind the cause of strokes in dogs:
- Poison ingestion (rat poison or pesticides)
- Brain tumor
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Congenital clogging disease
- Parasite infections
- Protein-losing nephropathy
While it’s known that these are the primary factors that cause a stroke to occur, it’s usually exceedingly difficult to identify the cause of stroke in reality.
The Risk Of Heat Strokes In Dogs
Another kind of stroke that can happen in dogs is a heat stroke. Heat strokes are usually the result of hyperthermia. Not to be confused with hypothermia, hyperthermia means that your pet’s body temperature has gone above a safe level. Your dog’s temperature should be between 99.8 and 102.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat strokes differ from a fever in that they are caused by external factors, like extreme weather, rather than a virus.
Heat strokes generally occur in dogs during late spring and early summer. During this period of time, your pet is still acclimating to the change in weather. So if they spend too much time outside or if the weather changes too quickly, a heat stroke can occur. If you’re concerned that your dog may be having a heat stroke, pay close attention to their behavior.
Dogs experiencing a heat stroke will pant frequently, evaporating saliva and sweat. They will also seek cool spots, shade, and water, and will minimize their activity levels as much as possible. Dogs that have dense coats, are young or old, dehydrated, in a poorly ventilated area, or are overweight are more likely to suffer a heat stroke. Heat strokes damage your pet’s blood cells, reduce organ performance, and even cause seizures.
How To Prevent Heat Strokes In Dogs
While heat strokes are a serious condition, they’re usually pretty easy to spot and prevent! When taking your dog out on a hot day, pay close attention to their behavior, and take any measures you can to ensure that they are cool and comfortable. During the summer, take shorter walks with your pet and limit the amount of time they spend playing outdoors.
If your dog spends a lot of time in the backyard, give them a break from the heat by creating a cooling area. Provide them with plenty of shade, water, and even throw in a cooling pad. They will instinctively go to these things if their body becomes overheated. If you have a long-haired dog, you can wet their hair with cool water before taking them outside, or even get it trimmed during the summer months.
If you suspect that your dog is already having a heat stroke, the first thing you need to do is restabilize their core temperature. You can bring their body temp back down by removing them from the hot environment, placing them in an air-conditioned space,
Symptoms Of Strokes In Dogs
Even though the cause of strokes in dogs can be difficult to determine, it’s usually not too hard to know when your dog is experiencing one. The first thing you’ll notice in your furry friend is odd behavior and strange movements. If they tilt their head at awkward angles, walk in circles, or easily lose their balance, they could be experiencing a stroke.
Other strange behaviors that dogs experiencing a stroke will show is heading in the opposite direction after being called, eating from only one side of their food bowl, confusion, and loss of bladder control. Keep in mind that the affected organ will be your dog’s brain, so the symptoms will primarily be neurological. If the stroke is more severe, your dog could even develop an arrhythmia, causing them to collapse unexpectedly.
More serious symptoms of a stroke include loss of vision, extreme lethargy, loss of bowel control, and vomiting.
Symptoms of strokes in dogs:
- Loss of eyesight
- Difficulty balancing
- Loss of bladder and bowel control
- Head tilting at odd angles
- Walking in circles
- Turning the opposite direction after being called
- Severe loss of control over body movements
- Memory loss
- Partial paralysis
How To Tell The Difference Between Vestibular Disease And Strokes In Dogs
If you’ve noticed these symptoms in your dog and attempted to diagnose them yourself, you’ve likely realized that they overlap with the symptoms of another common health issue in dogs: vestibular disease. It’s not uncommon for pet owners to misdiagnose their pets with vestibular disease after they’ve suffered a stroke. This can be a costly mistake, so regardless of what you believe your pet’s problem is, you should always consult a vet for a professional opinion.
Vestibular disease affects your dog’s vestibular system, which is responsible for overseeing their balance.
When affected, your dog will go through many of the same symptoms that they would after having a stroke:
- Loss of control over body movements
- Loss of balance
- Rapid and involuntary eye movements
- Difficulty standing and walking
- Disorientation and confusion
Vestibular disease in dogs can be caused by a variety of factors. These causes can range from severe health conditions to minor inconveniences. For instance, one potential cause of vestibular disease is an ear infection, while another is brain tumors. Older dogs are typically at a greater risk for developing vestibular disease.
Treatment For Strokes In Dogs
The unfortunate reality about strokes in dogs is that once they occur, there isn’t much that can be done to treat the effects. Damage to the brain is usually permanent, so your vet will likely be left with little to no options for resolving the damage. The closest there is to treatment for dogs with strokes is to diagnose the cause and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
On a more positive note, the bright side is that strokes generally don’t have a lasting effect on your pet’s quality of life. It is possible for a stroke to cause severe and permanent damage, but most of the time they return back to their old self within a few days. The best thing you can do for your pet after they’ve suffered from a stroke is to show them lots of love, support, and attention.
If your dog loses an important bodily function after a stroke, like their vision or bladder control, you’ll need to take extra steps to keep their quality of life as high as possible.
How Are Strokes In Dogs Diagnosed?
If you suspect that your dog has had a stroke, check their gums and inner eyelids. They will likely be a dark red color, indicating that they are experiencing a lack of oxygen. Either way, you should take them to a vet as quickly as possible. Your vet will use either a CAT scan or an MRI to determine if your dog has had a stroke, or if there is another cause under the surface.
Cardiac issues typically exhibit similar symptoms to a stroke, so your vet will most likely check your pet’s heart to make sure it’s functioning as it should. This could include a cardiogram, x-ray, and maybe even a cardiac ultrasound.
After your vet determines that their heart is functioning as it’s supposed to, they’ll likely move on to examine your pet’s brain. Strokes can usually be identified with an MRI or CAT scan. Your vet will also do tests, like urinalysis and bloodwork, to try to figure out what caused the stroke.
Prognosis For Strokes In Dogs
Even though there is no clear treatment or guarantee of diagnosing the cause, most dogs that suffer a stroke return to their normal lives pretty quickly. After just a few weeks your dog should be back to their normal selves! And if your vet is able to diagnose the cause of the stroke, then your pet has little to worry about in terms of living a full and happy life.
It is possible that some dogs will experience permanent damage to their bodily functions, which will require some special care. The more time that passes after your dog has survived a stroke, the higher their chances of leading a normal life are.
While your dog is recovering from their stroke, they will most likely need help going through the motions of their normal routines. Helping them to their food, eat, and go to the bathroom might be required.
While a stroke is an unpredictable and frightening issue for you and your dog, the effects are usually short-lived and easy to manage. Even in severe cases, where your pet develops a disability, there are plenty of options for making their life just as comfortable and pleasant as before.
Pot and your pet: Veterinarians seeing more THC toxicity in dogs
Veterinarians are seeing a 'dramatic spike' in dogs with marijuana toxicity dogs
"Your dog is positive for THC, and she's really high right now."
That's something Jennifer Wright never expected to hear from the on-call veterinarian at the Animal Hospital of Cambridge.
Coco, the Wright family's nine-month-old Yorkie-Havanese cross, had been acting out of sorts that evening.
"She was really lethargic, she picked her head up and it was wobbling," Wright said. "So I picked her up and I tried to set her down on the ground, and that's when I noticed . her back end was sort of swaying back and forth. She looked like she was going to fall over, and she could not walk, she would not walk."
The family piled into the car and frantically tried to find a clinic that was open in the off-hours.
"I literally thought my dog was having a stroke," Wright recalled.
THC out in the open
Coco wasn't having a stroke, but she was one of a growing number of dogs in Canada falling ill from THC toxicity since cannabis was legalized in October, 2018.
Sometimes, THC toxicity happens when an animal gets into their owners' stash, but like the Wrights experienced, sometimes a dog can get sick from eating as little as a discarded butt from the side of a walkway or in a city park, said Cathy Hrinivich, a small animal emergency care veterinarian at the Animal Hospital of Cambridge.
"We have people come in, particularly seniors, they've walked the same route with their dog for years and years and never had a problem with this before, the dog is sniffing around and gets into something," Hrinivich said.
"And they're just absolutely flabbergasted, just floored that we are diagnosing marijuana toxicity."
756 per cent increase over a decade
The numbers are only anecdotal, right now, said Dr. Shane Bateman, an emergency and critical care clinician at the Ontario Veterinary College, but he said similar trends have been studied in the United States.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals runs a poison control hotline in the U.S. and has reported a 756 per cent increase in calls related to marijuana or cannabis over the course of the last 10 years, he said.
Washington and Colorado became the first two states to legalize recreational cannabis in 2012. It is now legal in 12, including the District of Columbia, and approved for medical use in 33 states.
"Certainly since the legalization of marijuana products, I think every veterinarian has seen just a dramatic spike in marijuana toxicity dogs, for sure," Hrinivich said.
Hrinivich said the hospital has seen an increase in both calls from worried pet owners and cases presented at the clinic — but said many pet owners are hesitant to bring in their dogs.
"They just want to call for advice and they want us to hear them out," but she said, "we're a no-judgment zone. I think all veterinarians, we all want to be there and help people. So if people can use us and come in — the dog really should have care."
Leash or muzzle your dog
The Ontario Veterinary College hasn't seen much of an increase since legalization, said Bateman, but he believes that's because most cases handled by the OVC are complex cases, referred by veterinarians.
"Most veterinarians are probably likely treating these cases on their own. They're generally fairly simple and straightforward and not very many of them are life-threatening," Bateman said.
Bateman recommends people limit off-leash walks with their pets, while Hrinivich recommends taking it a step further.
"There's some great products like basket muzzles out now that the dogs tolerate really well. I use one on my daughter's dog — she brought home a lab and that dog is like a goat, it eats anything, so I put a basket muzzle on him when I take him out. It protects him, it protects me, it's just a safer way to go," she said.
Wright has said her family is now "hyper-vigilant" when they take Coco for a walk "keeping her on the sidewalk and making sure we're trying to keep everything out of her mouth — which is quite a challenge but we're just glad she's OK."
5 Signs Your Dog Just Had A Stroke (And What To Do)
Strokes are not as common in dogs as they are in humans, but they can be equally serious and frightening. Unfortunately, recognizing the signs of stroke in dogs can be difficult. Our pups are quite stoic, and without the gift of speech to tell us how they are feeling, diagnosis is challenging.
Below we will discuss the types of stroke, how to recognize the signs in your dog, and what you can do to help them beat the odds.
What Is A Stroke?
According to the American Stroke Association, a stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain gets blocked or ruptures. When oxygenated blood cannot reach the affected area of the brain, cell death can occur.
Strokes often happen suddenly and without warning.
There Are 2 Types Of Stroke In Dogs:
These strokes occur when blood clots, tumor cells, clumps of platelets, bacteria or parasites obstruct the blood vessels of the brain. This obstruction leads to damage of the brain tissue. Ischemic strokes are more common than hemorrhagic strokes in both dogs and humans.
In a hemorrhagic stroke, blood vessels rupture, causing bleeding in the brain, swelling, and increased pressure.
Signs Of Stroke In Dogs
As mentioned above, the symptoms of stroke in dogs can be subtle and hard to recognize. There are no warning signs prior to the stroke itself, so dogs often seem to go from perfectly normal to extremely impaired.
Some of the more common signs and symptoms to watch out for include:
1. Acute Weakness
A dog that has suffered a stroke may lose its balance or coordination when walking. They may also experience weakness or paralysis in one or more limbs.
2. Pacing or Circling
Depending on which side of the brain is affected, the dog may circle to one side or turn in the wrong direction when called.
Lack of blood to some regions of the brain may cause the dog to collapse or even lose consciousness.
3. Facial & Vision Changes
While facial drooping is more common in people with strokes, you may notice your dog’s head is tilting to one side or that their facial expression appears odd. It’s also common for dogs to experience impaired vision or even blindness.
Some dogs have abnormal eye movements from side to side or around in circles. Others may have unusual eye positioning, such as one eye that wanders while the other stays still, or eyes that appear to focus on two different spots.
4. Loss of Bladder and/or Bowel Control
It’s not uncommon for dogs to lose control of their bodily functions during a stroke.
Issues with balance and uncontrolled eye movement often cause nausea and vomiting.
Other Conditions Can Mimic The Signs Of Stroke
The major signs of stroke in dogs can also be symptoms of another condition known as Idiopathic Vestibular Disease (IVD).
The vestibular system is made up of delicate structures within the dog’s inner ear that “report” to the brain to maintain balance, coordination, and the position of the head, eyes, and legs. Disruption of this system can cause symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, head tilt, loss of balance, falling or rolling to one side, circling, trouble walking, and abnormal eye movements.
IVD is most common in older dogs and those with chronic ear infections. While it is undoubtedly a nuisance, it is not life-threatening and often resolves on its own. Sadly, many people mistake the signs of IVD for stroke and have their dogs euthanized prematurely.
Syncope – or fainting spells – may also be mistaken for stroke in dogs.
What To Do If You Believe Your Dog Has Had A Stroke
If you suspect your dog has had a stroke, seek veterinary attention immediately. Permanent neurological damage can occur in a short period of time, so you should not delay treatment. In the meantime, keep your dog calm and protect them from falls and injuries that may occur due to disorientation.
When you arrive at the animal hospital, your vet will perform a physical exam and a series of tests to rule out other problems and confirm a stroke. An MRI or CAT scan may be necessary to definitively diagnose a stroke and rule out other brain diseases with similar symptoms.
In addition to blood work, your vet will likely perform a full cardiac workup to determine if the stroke was caused by underlying heart disease. Other tests may include an electrocardiogram, chest X-rays, or a cardiac ultrasound.
Causes Of Stroke In Dogs
Both ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes are more likely to occur in senior dogs and those with preexisting conditions such as:
- Kidney Disease
- Cushing’s Disease
- Bleeding Disorders
While these conditions certainly increase the risk, 50% of canine strokes have no specific underlying cause.
There are no specific dog breeds that are predisposed to strokes, but certain breeds are prone to the underlying diseases that cause them. For example, King Charles Cavalier Spaniels have a high rate of heart disease, putting them at an increased risk for strokes.
How Serious Are Dog Strokes?
The severity of a stroke depends on the part of the brain affected and how long the brain goes without blood flow. Catastrophic strokes can significantly reduce the quality of life or even be fatal.
On the other hand, not all strokes are life-altering, and many dogs go on to live long, happy lives. Recovery and long-term prognosis depend on:
- Type and severity of stroke
- Underlying medical conditions
- How quickly your dog receives treatment
- Supportive care
Is There Anything You Can Do To Prevent Your Dog From Having A Stroke?
Since half of canine strokes have no underlying cause or warning signs, there’s really no way to prevent them. However, keeping your pet healthy can reduce the odds. Feed a balanced diet, maintain a healthy weight, and keep up with regular veterinary checkups. As your dog ages, increase the number of vet visits to help diagnose any u nderlying diseases that may contribute to canine strokes.
Remember, early detection is key: always seek veterinary care at the first sign of a stroke!