How to Recognize a Stroke in Dogs

Three Methods:Knowing the Signs of a StrokeCaring For a Dog You Suspect Has Had a StrokeAssessing Whether Your Dog is at Risk of Stroke

Knowing the risks, signs, and symptoms of a stroke means that you can provide your dog with proper care and make it comfortable if you suspect a stroke. Although all dogs can potentially suffer from a stroke, older dogs, dogs that are overweight, or dogs that have certain health problems are more likely to experience a stroke. If you know what to look for and what to do, it can help you to keep calm and it allows you to seek veterinary advice more quickly. While it is important to comfort a dog during what is probably an extremely frightening experience, knowing how to identify and treat a stroke can potentially even save your dog's life.

Method 1
Knowing the Signs of a Stroke

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    Identify the common symptoms of a stroke. The symptoms of a stroke are varied, from sudden loss of balance to altered consciousness. Review the signs of a stroke and keep an eye on a dog you suspect is having a stroke. You want to be able to identity any of the key symptoms.
    • Extreme weakness: There may be a neurological weakness of the limbs. This means that the nerves are not working and therefore do not give the legs the right information about how to stand up and support the dog. Although the muscles are strong enough to support the body, they do not receive the right nerve messages and so the animal is extremely weak and unable to stand.
    • Nystagmus: Nystagmus is the technical term for when the eyes flick rapidly from side to side, as if watching a tennis match on fast forward. This is a common indicator of stroke, although it can also happen for other reasons, such as meningitis. Again, once nystagmus starts it can last for days. It also makes the pet feel nauseous, because it invokes a form of motion sickness. Because of this, the dog may vomit and lose interest in food.
    • Sudden loss of balance. Be on the look out for a dog that cannot coordinate its limbs.
    • Altered consciousness: In severe strokes some dogs may seizure or fit, whilst others may lose consciousness. This means they are unaware of what is going on around them and do not respond to their name or other stimuli.
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    Differentiate between the symptoms of a stroke and the symptoms of other conditions. A stroke is a sudden event. You should suspect a stroke if a pet that was fine and normal 5 minutes ago, is now struggling to get up. If the dog is struggling because its dizzy, such as if they have heart disease, this episode may pass within a few minutes, once the dog has caught its breath be able to rise and walk around. A dog that has had a stroke, however, will remain disorientated for hours or even days.
    • Please note, this symptom also overlaps with inflammation in the balance mechanism in the inner ear.
    • In addition, there is a sliding scale of weakness, depending on the severity of the stroke. Sometimes if it is only mild the dog can stand and walk around slowly as if drunk, other times the dog is incapacitated, lies on their side and is barely conscious.
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    Understand how the length of stroke symptoms is central to a diagnosis of a stroke. To be classified as a stroke, technically the symptoms must persist for longer than 24 hours. If the symptoms resolve before this, and yet there is a strong suspicions of a blockage in the brain, it is instead known as a transient ischaemic attack (TIA) . TIAs are a strong warning sign that a full blown stroke is on the way, and so always seek veterinary attention so any underlying causes can be corrected to reduce this risk.
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    Be aware that conditions other than a stroke can cause similar symptoms to those of a stroke. Because these conditions are vastly different, the treatment will differ. However, do not worry too much about labelling your dog's condition but instead seek urgent help.
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    Contact your veterinarian if you suspect a stroke. There are several symptoms that can point towards your pet having had a stroke. However, do not be too concerned about reaching a specific diagnosis at home, because calling the symptoms a stroke is just a label. What is important is that if you see one or some of these signs you should get urgent veterinary attention for your pet.[1]

Method 2
Caring For a Dog You Suspect Has Had a Stroke

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    Keep calm. If you believe your dog has had a stroke, the first thing to do is keep calm. Your dog will need your help in order to survive, so keep your wits about you and focus on helping your pup.
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    Make sure your dog is comfortable. Put the dog in a quiet, warm environment. Make him or her as comfortable as possible by placing it on a padded bed and removing nearby furniture it could hurt itself on.
    • If your dog is unable to stand, turn it to lie on the opposite side of its body every half an hour to reduce the risk of pneumonia because of blood pooling in one side of his lungs.
    • Put water near your dog so it can drink without getting up. If it doesn't want to drink for a long time, wipe its gums with a wet cloth to give it some moisture.
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    Phone the veterinarian and seek an urgent care appointment. If this emergency happens on a weekend or late at night, call your vets emergency line. If you get not response, you may need to find an emergency veterinary clinic to take your dog to.
    • Make note of your dog's symptoms so you can relay them to the veterinarian over the phone. It's important to know the strength and length of symptoms, so that you can properly communicate the severity of your dog's condition to the vet.
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    Understand what your veterinarian will do for your dog. The priorities for treatment of a dog that has had a stroke include minimizing swelling to the brain and maximizing oxygen to the brain.[2] This will be done with medication and medical care. In addition, your veterinary office will be able to take care of secondary concerns, such as keeping your dog hydrated and comfortable.

Method 3
Assessing Whether Your Dog is at Risk of Stroke

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    Understand the basics aspects of a stroke. A stroke is caused by an interruption to the blood flow to part of the brain. It is a hallmark of strokes that they have a sudden onset, because of the sudden nature of a blood clot switching off the blood supply to part of the brain. The exact symptoms depend on which precise area of the brain is affected, but there are several symptoms held in common, no matter where the blood clot lodges.[3]
    • A stroke is almost always caused by a blood clot which lodges and causes obstruction in the blood vessel, but it is also possible that it's caused by a plug of fat that has dislodged and circulated to the brain. A stroke can even be caused by a plug of bacteria in the brain.
    • For many years there was dispute amongst veterinarians about whether animals had strokes or not. But this argument has now been largely won by the "yes they do happen" camp, because sophisticated imaging techniques, such as MRI scans, have produced pictures of the blockages in the brain.[4]
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    Figure out if your dog is in an "at risk" category for stroke. Those dogs most at risk are often older, and have pre-existing health condition such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or Cushing's disease. Some veterinarians anecdotally report that dogs with underactive thyroid glands are at increased risk of stroke, but the data to prove this is lacking.
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    Think about other risk factors. Other problems that can predispose a dog to a stroke include heartworm, where larvae can break off and circulate to the brain to cause a blockage. Also at risks are dogs with a history of clotting problems, with kidney disease, a high fever, or cancer.[5]
    • The lowest risk group for stroke are young, fit dogs with no health problems that are regularly treated against heartworm.
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    Know that dogs differ from people. Be aware that a stroke in a dog has a different presentation to in people. Whereas a person may be affected down one side of their body and their speech may be affected, this is not the case with dogs. They present in the ways described above.[6]

Sources and Citations

  1. Clinical characteristics of cerebrovascular disease in small animals. Shores, Cooper et al. Proc 9th ACVIM Forum.
  3. Clinical characteristics of cerebrovascular disease in small animals. Shores, Cooper et al. Proc 9th ACVIM Forum.

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