Strokes in Dogs

happy senior lab outdoors

Purple Collar Pet Photography / Getty Images

Strokes are something that can be seen with alarming regularity in our elderly human population. It is the third leading cause of death in people in the United States. While dogs don't suffer from strokes at nearly the same frequency, they are something that owners of elderly, geriatric dogs should be aware of.

What Is A Stroke?

A stroke is any loss of blood flow to part or parts of the brain. Just as in people, this can cause various neurological signs. Mechanistically, there are two different ways a stroke can occur. Ischemic strokes are cause when the blood vessels are obstructed. This can be due to blood clots, tumor cells, platelet clumps, bacteria, or even parasites. Hemorrhagic strokes are caused when there are brain bleeds, either from a rupture of blood vessels or from a clotting disorder.

If your dog has suffered a stroke you may see signs that are similar to those seen in people.

Signs of Strokes in Dogs

  • Uncoordinated gait or complete inability to walk
  • Head tilt
  • Abnormal eye movements (“nystagmus”)
  • Abnormal eye positioning (“strabismus”)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Falling or listing to one side
  • Blindness
  • Abnormal behavior/sudden change in behavior
  • Less aware of surroundings or confusion
  • Pacing or circling
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

The onset of symptoms will be rapid and can last just a few minutes to hours or even days. The manifestation of symptoms and the severity will depend on the location of the brain lesion. In other words, a stroke in one part of the brain might be characterized by mild, short-lasting symptoms while a stroke in another part of the brain might be characterized by severe, long-lasting symptoms.

Strokes, although not a regular diagnosis made by veterinarians, are seen much more often in geriatric dogs. Senior dogs that already have a disease process that can increase a dog's risk for bleeding are more at risk for a stroke than senior dogs that don't have those diseases. Things like kidney disease, Cushing's disease, hypothyroidism, cancers, bleeding disorders, and heart disease can increase your dog's risk for stroke. There is not one specific dog breed that is markedly at risk for stroke, but there are dog breeds that are prone to the disease processes previously mentioned. 

What to Do if You Suspect Your Dog Is Having a Stroke

If your dog suddenly starts showing any of the symptoms mentioned above, take him/her to the vet immediately. Your vet may want to run blood work, a urinalysis, take radiographs, run an EKG screen, or get a blood pressure reading to check for any concurrent diseases. Unfortunately, because a stroke by definition occurs in soft tissues of the brain, a definitive diagnosis can only be made by specialized imaging, such as an MRI or CAT scan. While these are available in veterinary medicine, an owner usually has to go to a referral hospital for them and can be cost-prohibitive. If any underlying diseases are uncovered medications to better control those diseases will be prescribed. 

You vet will also want to rule out something called idiopathic vestibular disease, which is presents similarly but is a different illness altogether. Idiopathic refers to the exact cause of the disease being unknown, but this illness, also called Old Dog Syndrome, effects the vestibular system in your dog's inner ear. A dog suffering from vestibular disease will develop a head tilt, a circling gait, and may not want to eat their food any more. The symptoms are alarmingly similar to those of a stroke but idiopathic vestibular disease is far more common in elderly dogs than a true stroke. 

What Can I Do for My Dog if They Have a Stroke?

Recovery depends on the type of stroke as well as the severity as well as the presence or absence of any underlying diseases. Some dogs may start to recover in just a few weeks while others will recover more slowly. Additionally, some dogs may never fully recover. Unfortunately, some dogs may suffer a stroke that proves fatal.

There is no specific treatment for strokes in dogs. Rather, supportive care to help make them feel more comfortable will be prescribed by your veterinarian. 

Can I Do Anything to Prevent Strokes in My Dog?

Strokes cannot be truly prevented by any medical means. However, since they are so often associated with other diseases, routine checkups with your vet, including blood work, can identify any illnesses before they cause any clinical symptoms that could increase your dog's risk for a stroke. If you have a dog that is a breed that is prone to things like Cushing's disease, heart disease, kidney disease, hypothyroidism, etc. becoming aware of the signs and symptoms of those diseases can also, in turn, help you potentially prevent a stoke in the future.