Wondering if your dog is showing signs of a stroke or a seizure?
If your dog is having a seizure, they may stiffen and lose consciousness for a short period of time. They may foam at the mouth, look confused or dazed, and may lose control of their bodily functions.
It may seem like an eternity, but seizures in dogs usually only last a couple of minutes. If a seizure lasts any longer, it could be a medical emergency requiring immediate veterinary care.
Signs of stroke in dogs, depending on the type of stroke, may cause your dog to become uncoordinated, walk with a head tilt, or develop abnormal eye movements. Your dog may have partial or full paralysis and could develop other serious issues that are not immediately obvious.
Keep reading to learn more about the consequences of stroke and what that means for your dog’s quality of life and life expectancy. We’ll explain the different types of strokes a dog could have, the potential causes, and what can be done to support a dog after a stroke.
What is a stroke in dogs?
A stroke (cerebrovascular accident) occurs if a blood vessel leading to the brain becomes obstructed. However, they can also occur if a blood vessel bursts inside the brain.
It was once thought that strokes were rare in dogs. However, that could be because they’ve been under-diagnosed over the years.
Thankfully, advanced imaging capabilities have made stroke easier to diagnose.
Ultimately, a stroke happens when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted. Because of this disruption, brain cells are deprived of essential oxygen and die. Of course, the severity of the stroke depends on how long the brain was deprived of oxygen.
The brain, more than any other organ, is dependent on a continuous blood supply to bring oxygen and nutrients and to remove waste products.
There are 3 main types of stroke in dogs and these are explained in detail further into this post.
Is your dog at risk of a stroke?
Any dog breed could have a stroke. According to VCA Hospitals, Cavalier King Charles spaniels and greyhounds appear more likely affected.
Older dogs, or those with underlying conditions (see below), can also leave the dog at increased risk of stroke.
Underlying conditions that may lead to canine stroke
Dogs with an underlying condition, like the ones listed below, may be at higher risk of having a stroke.
Examples of underlying conditions include:
- Kidney failure (also known as kidney disease)
- Neoplasia (tumor or growth)
- Cushing’s Disease (hyperadrenocorticism)
- Hypertension (dogs with high blood pressure)
- Diabetes mellitus
- Heart disease
- Bleeding disorders where the ability for blood to clot is impaired.
- Brain diseases (brain tumor, for example)
- High doses of prednisone (some cases)
Senior dogs are also at higher risk of having a stroke.
How to Tell the Difference Between a Stroke and a Seizure
It’s not uncommon for dogs to have seizures. However, seizures don’t usually cause permanent brain damage. A stroke, on the other hand, can cause paralysis and other limiting consequences.
One complicating factor here is that a stroke can actually bring on a seizure.
Unless your dog is known to have seizures, it can be difficult to tell them apart from a stroke. The best advice is to contact your veterinarian or emergency vet as soon as you notice unusual signs.
The clinical signs of a stroke are listed further into this post.
If your dog has a stroke, there will be permanent brain damage that may or may not be evident right away. Dogs usually recover quickly from a seizure whereas they don’t with a stroke.
3 Types of stroke in dogs
As you can see below, dogs can suffer different types of stroke. The type and severity of clinical signs will depend on the type of stroke.
Hemorrhagic strokes are less common in dogs, but can happen. They occur when a blood vessel in the brain bursts and bleeds. The build-up of pressure in the blood vessel blocks blood flow to the brain. Signs of a stroke in dogs will vary depending on where the arterial blockage occurs.
An ischemic stroke occurs when a blood vessel leading to the brain becomes blocked. This blockage prevents oxygen from getting to the brain. A blood clot, for example, can cause an ischemic stroke.
Spinal strokes can occur if a piece of cartilage breaks away from the spine and blocks blood supply to the brain.
Heat strokes are not the same as a regular stroke in dogs. For more information on heat strokes, read: How to Tell If Your Dog Has Heat Stroke: Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention by Memphis Veterinary Specialists.
Clinical Signs of Stroke in Dogs
- Head tilt
- Loss of balance or falling to one side
- Abnormal eye movements (could be side to side or rapid, repetitive, uncontrolled eye movements)
- Paralysis on one side of the body
- Behavioral change (abnormal)
- Loss of consciousness]
Diagnosing Stroke in Dogs
When diagnosing a stroke in dogs, the veterinarian may ask questions about your dog’s medical history. Things like recent trauma to the head or getting into toxic materials may be potential causes of a stroke in dogs.
If you suspect your dog has had a stroke, it’s important to get your dog to the veterinarian or emergency vet if you suspect your dog has had a stroke.
CT Scan (cat scan)
A CT scan can help rule out underlying conditions.
Physical examination can help the veterinarian identify signs of stroke including abnormal eye movement or paralysis.
The veterinarian may order blood work to screen for signs of an underlying condition. Your dog could already have a condition that has been previously diagnosed.
However, it’s possible that the condition has worsened or your dog has developed something else.
Again, urinalysis is a screen tool to help the veterinarian determine whether any underlying conditions are present.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI scans)
MRI scans help the veterinarian visualize any lesions caused by a stroke. This is the only tool that is used to make a definitive diagnosis. This is because the technology provides a detailed image of the brain.
X-rays or CT scans can’t provide that kind of information.
Chest x-rays help the veterinarian better see tissues, organs, and bones under the chest cavity. This can help the doctor rule out heart or lung disease.
A chest x-ray can help evaluate whether there is an enlarged heart or swelling of the large artery. These factors could signify heartworms in a dog. Heartworms, unfortunately, may lead to blood clots in the arteries of the lung.
Blood clots are a common cause of strokes in people and dogs.
Blood Clotting Analysis
There are a variety of coagulation tests that can be performed to evaluate the ability of a dog’s blood to clot properly.
An ECG can detect heart rhythm abnormalities which could indicate heart disease. Abnormalities could include:
- Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats)
- Heart chamber abnormalities in size and structure
- Other heart defects
- Head trauma
Long-term prognosis for dogs that have had a stroke
There isn’t a specific treatment for dogs with stroke. The prognosis depends on the severity of the stroke and how badly brain cells have been damaged.
Strokes are caused when there is loss of blood flow causing permanent damage to brain cells. The severity or damage depends on which parts of the brain were affected, and the cause of the stroke.
If an underlying disease was diagnosed, the focus will be on managing that specific disease.
Supportive care related to underlying disease may prevent another stroke from happening in the future. For example, if a blood clot led to the stroke, blood thinners may be prescribed.
If the dog is diagnosed with hypertension, high blood pressure medications would likely be prescribed.
Steroids, mannitol, and hypertonic saline may be used to relieve swelling in the brain.
Supplemental oxygen may also be used to help deliver crucial oxygen to damaged tissues while promoting healing.
If the dog is left paralyzed and can no longer enjoy life, it may be time to make the devastating decision to euthanize.
It takes time to recover from a stroke. In the meantime, your dog may need help with going to the bathroom (urination and defecation). Ensuring your dog has good nutrition can go a long way in the healing process.
In addition, physical therapy may be required to help your dog regain lost mobility if possible.
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The good news is that strokes can potentially be averted through regular wellness checks. Our dogs become more at risk of developing secondary conditions that can lead to stroke as they age.
Maintaining regular check-ups with the veterinarian can help identify and manage underlying conditions before they get to the point where they can cause a stroke.
Signs of stroke in dogs should be reported promptly to a veterinarian. Prompt treatment and supportive care can help your dog in the recovery process.
“How to Detect the Symptoms of Stroke in Dogs – Seizures and Strokes.” animalwised.com, 28 Apr. 2020, www.animalwised.com/how-to-detect-the-symptoms-of-stroke-in-dogs-3455.html.
“Ischaemic and Haemorrhagic Stroke in the Dog.” Ischaemic and Haemorrhagic Stroke in the Dog – ScienceDirect, 24 June 2008, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tvjl.2007.12.023.
Arnold, Susan A., et al. “Imaging Ischemic and Hemorrhagic Disease of the Brain in Dogs.” PubMed Central (PMC), 27 May 2020, https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2020.00279.
“Strokes in Dogs | VCA Animal Hospitals.” Vca, vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/strokes-in-dogs. Accessed 15 May 2023.