What is a Stroke ?
Dr. Virginia Sinnott of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Angell Medical Center explains that a stroke is loss of blood flow to parts of the brain that leads to neurologic abnormalities.
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 a Stroke Looks Like in a Dog
Signs of strokes in animals can be similar to those in people, though animals obviously do not suffer from slurred speech or loss of memory, and symptoms vary depending on the location in the brain where the stroke occurred, Dr. Levitzke says.
“Even in people, these signs can be subtle, and since animals can’t speak and tell us they ‘feel dizzy’ or ‘I can no longer see out of my left eye,’ subtle true strokes can go unnoticed in animals,” Dr. Sinnott says.
However, it is more common to see massive strokes in dogs, she says, and pet parents sometimes mistake fainting spells (syncope) for strokes. “Both are very serious and require immediate attention by a veterinarian,” Dr. Sinnott says.
Symptoms of strokes in dogs can include :
– Inability to walk or walking with an uncoordinated gait
– Head tilt
– Abnormal eye movements, side to side or rotary (nystagmus)
– Abnormal eye positioning (strabismus)
– Loss of consciousness
– Abnormal behavior
– Falling to one side
– Abnormal behavior
– Rapid onset of symptoms
Would you know if your dog had a stroke ?
What you should do
If you suspect your dog has had a stroke, look inside her mouth for dark red gums or check her inner eyelids to see if they are dark red. This may indicate a decrease in oxygen to the body. If there is any suspicion of a stroke, it is important that you take your dog to a veterinarian immediately.
Treatment Begins with Diagnosis
Proper diagnosis is the most important part of treating strokes in dogs. A fainting spell that might look like a stroke can be caused by abnormal heart rhythm, which can be life threatening. Your vet can distinguish a stroke from a fainting spell by examining your dog’s heart functions to rule out a cardiac problem. Tests may include an electrocardiogram (ECG), chest X-rays, and possibly a cardiac ultrasound, Dr. Sinnott says.
If the heart is normal, the brain will be examined by MRI or CAT scan. Your vet might also do more testing to look for underlying disease that could cause a blood clot, such as hormone testing, bloodwork, and urinalysis, she says.
Once the cause is determined, treatment will aim to resolve it, Dr. Levitzke says. If a clot caused the stroke, blood thinners might be prescribed, or high blood pressure medications might be in order for a stroke caused by hypertension.
“The neurologic signs associated with a stroke are allowed to resolve on their own as the patient’s body re-establishes blood flow to the affected area and swelling resolves. Medications such as steroids, mannitol and hypertonic saline can help resolve swelling in the brain,” Dr. Levitzke says.
Managing urination and defecation, maintaining good nutrition, and simple physical therapy (massage, passive range of motion of limbs, if needed, etc.) are important for healing. “The brain is very adept at recovery, though it can take time,” says Dr. Levitzke.
Can Strokes in Dogs be Prevented ?
Strokes per se cannot be prevented. However, given the fact that they are associated with underlying disease processes, routine check-ups with a veterinarian and screening blood work.