Strokes in Dogs: Signs, Risk Factors & What You Should Do

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It only takes one moment for your carefree pup to go from fetching midair to being grounded and unable to stand up. While there may be many causes for sudden immobility, a stroke may be one of your first thoughts.

A dog stroke occurs when there is a sudden loss of blood supply to a region of the central nervous system. Though dog strokes can take on different appearances, strokes in dogs are one of the most alarming occurrences for a pet parent to witness. Read on to learn more about the signs that indicate your dog may be having a stroke and what you can do to help.

Human Stroke vs. Dog Stroke

In both dogs and humans, a stroke may occur when part of the brain doesn't receive the blood flow it requires. This blood loss can be due to a blocked blood vessel, called an ischemic stroke, or a bleeding blood vessel, called a hemorrhagic stroke. Before we delve deeper into this frightening medical topic, take comfort in knowing that strokes in dogs are typically not life-threatening and less debilitating than they are in people. The aftermath of a stroke in a dog also tends to cause less long-term facial paralysis than a stroke in a human.

Unlike people, dogs can also have strokes when blood loss affects their spinal cord. Because of this difference, a dog experiencing a stroke may present more limb abnormalities.

Clinical Signs of a Dog Stroke

The clinical signs associated with a stroke depend on the part of the nervous system affected, but one of the main differences between strokes and other diseases that can cause similar symptoms is the acute (sudden) onset of signs. Other nervous system diseases that present similar clinical signs generally take longer to develop and worsen with time. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, some of the more common signs of dog strokes include:

Brown Leonberger dog lying in a field with head tilted.

  • Head tilt
  • Difficulty or reluctance in walking
  • Walking in circles
  • Loss of bowels or bladder control
  • Acute personality change
  • Disorientation or mental fogginess
  • Abnormal eye movement or positioning
  • Falling or circling to one side
  • Blindness
  • Seizures

Dogs at Higher Risk of Strokes

A dog of any age, gender or breed can experience a stroke, but younger adult dogs tend to be over-represented in the age category. Large breed dogs tend to be more affected. Seemingly healthy dogs are prone to strokes, just as their unhealthy fellow pups.

Among dogs with underlying medical ailments, dogs with blood clotting abnormalities are at an increased risk. Dogs with kidney disease, heart disease, thyroid disease, Cushing's disease, diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, tumors or even internal parasites may be at a higher risk for stroke, according to Davies Veterinary Specialists.

Strokes in Dogs: What You Should Do

If you think your dog has had a stroke, it's critical to visit a veterinarian as soon as possible. Your vet may want to perform cardiac tests or blood work to narrow down the list of potential diagnoses. Advanced imaging may be needed to confirm a stroke is the cause of your dog's symptoms. In some cases, a referral to a veterinary neurologist is in the dog's best interest.

If your vet suspects that a stroke has occurred, they will initiate treatment based upon the clinical signs. For instance, if a blood clot is likely to blame, blood thinner drug therapy may be prescribed. If high blood pressure is a factor, hypertension medications may be warranted. Physical therapy may also be part of the long-term plan to regain full mobility.

Bernese mountain dog lying on the ground

Similar to a Stroke: "Old Dog" Vestibular Disease

Old dog vestibular disease, sometimes referred to as idiopathic vestibular disease, describes a condition that occurs when a dog's vestibular system does not function normally. The dog's vestibular system regulates balance, proper head position and normal eye movements. Any number of abnormalities within the vestibular system can result in clinical signs associated with imbalance or incoordination.

The term "idiopathic" simply means that the cause of a condition remains unknown to vets. Some causes of vestibular disease and stroke can be identified and traced to their root, including autoimmune inflammation, infections of the inner ear and brainstem, tumors, metabolic disorders and nutritional disorders. "Old dog" vestibular disease, on the other hand, remains a bit of a mystery to vets and veterinary scientists.

As with stroke, the onset of idiopathic vestibular disease is often sudden and severity can vary from mild to severe. The dog's head is often tilted to one side, making it look as if they're listening to the ground. Affected animals may have abnormal eye movements in which the eyes move rapidly from side to side. More commonly, pet parents notice that the dog may stumble, fall or circle to the same side as the head tilt. Your dog's walk may be uncoordinated because their balance system is malfunctioning. Severely affected animals may continually roll over and be unable to walk. Some animals may be so off-balance and disoriented that they become nauseated and vomit.

As you can imagine, the signs of idiopathic vestibular disease are quite alarming and very similar to the signs of a canine stroke. The good news with "old dog" vestibular disease is that it will typically resolve within a few days. You can rely on your vet to determine the likely diagnosis and best course of action. While we wish we could shield our beloved canine companions from all pain and illness, strokes in dogs typically occur with no warning signs. Many pet parents even report that their dog was running or playing when the event occurred. Fortunately, most dogs that have strokes can recover with time and a little tender, loving care. If the vet can pinpoint the likely cause of the stroke and treat this condition, this can help reduce the chances of your dog experiencing another stroke in the future.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Laci Schaible

Dr. Laci Schaible

Dr. Laci Schaible is a small animal veterinarian, entrepreneur, author, and speaker. A graduate of Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Wake Forest University School of Law, Dr. Schaible is passionate about progressive change in the veterinary industry and serves as an advisor on a number of boards within the field.