The short answer to this question is: yes, they do, although not as commonly as humans. However, there is often some misunderstanding about what exactly strokes look like in dogs. There can be some confusion with other neurological problems. In this blog we’ll look at what a stroke actually is, and some other potential suspects that can mimic the signs.

So, what exactly is a stroke?

Stroke, just like in humans, is a term used to describe an incident where there is a lack of blood to the nervous system, usually the brain. This can be caused by a blockage of a vessel (ischaemic stroke), or by a bleed (haemorrhagic stroke). Strokes are most common in the brain but can be in the spinal cord. 

Ischaemic strokes are caused by the blockage of a blood vessel by a blood clot. However vessels can also be blocked by tumour cells, infections or parasites. The obstacle will stop blood flow to an area of the brain, and therefore cut off the supply of oxygen and nutrients. This causes those cells to die. Haemorrhagic strokes are down to bleeds resulting from trauma or clotting disorders which then causes swelling and damage to the surrounding brain tissue.

Can any dog have a stroke?

Older dogs are generally more at risk, just as in people. Underlying diseases can increase the risk, especially Cushing’s disease (hyperadrenocorticism), high blood pressure, hypothyroidism, clotting disorders and cancer. In human medicine, smoking and drinking alcohol are both high risk factors, but at least for dogs we can rule those out! 

What does a stroke look like?

Strokes are, of course, very worrying for owners and can be distressing to witness in your dog. They occur with no warning and can have a variety of symptoms; some quite serious. The signs will depend on which area of the brain is affected. A stroke primarily affecting the spine will cause leg weakness and paralysis, whereas if the brain is affected you may see loss of balance, seizures and blindness. 

However, in some cases the signs of a stroke can be much milder and therefore more difficult to spot. Common examples include the loss of sight in one eye, or a difference in response to an owner. Both of which could easily be attributed to old age. Stroke symptoms can also be very non-specific: signs such as a head tilt, difficulty walking well, loss of house-training, falling over and abnormal eye positions can also be found with other neurological disorders.

What causes strokes and can they be treated?

The exact cause of a stroke may require some detective work to find. There are various blood tests, blood pressure measurements and imaging of the brain and spine that can be done. They will try and rule out some of the common underlying causes. Also look for any evidence of why exactly the stroke occurred. However, sometimes the exact source of the problem cannot be found, especially with older dogs who may not be as suitable candidates for lots of tests. 

Recovery from a stroke can be very variable, and much depends on which area of the brain has been damaged. Many may fully resolve with time and nursing care, but some will require medication. If a vital part of the brain has been damaged, recovery may be much more limited. The long-term outlook also changes if there is an underlying disease, and how easily this can be managed. 

What else could it be?

Owners of older dogs with the sudden onset of worrying symptoms such as being wobbly on their legs and flickering eye movements often rush their pets straight to their vet, alarmed that they have suffered a stroke. Seeking veterinary advice is absolutely the right approach in these cases, as there are other causes for these distressing signs.

A common condition in older dogs that is often confused with a stroke is called vestibular disease. Also referred to as ‘old dog vestibular syndrome’ or ‘canine idiopathic vestibular syndrome’, this disease can mimic the signs of a stroke. 

What is vestibular disease?

The vestibular centre in dogs is made up of a set of sensors (deep in the ear). It sends signals, and receivers (in the brain). These signals control balance, posture and the body’s orientation. This means that any trouble with the vestibular system can lead to huge balance problems. Resulting in a very wobbly unstable gait (called ‘ataxia’), disorientation, falling or circling to one side, flickering eye movements and a head tilt. This loss of orientation can also cause severe nausea and vomiting. 

What causes it and can we treat it?

Due to the vestibular sensors being located deep in the ear, severe infections affecting the middle or inner ear can cause disruption to the whole system. The middle ear is quite difficult to see with just an examination from a vet (usually just the outer canal is examined). It may require x-rays, but symptoms of vestibular disease alongside evidence of an ear infection would be suspicious for this cause. Vestibular disease can, however, also be ‘idiopathic’ – which means there is no known cause. 

Idiopathic cases usually resolve in a week or two, although some are left with a head tilt. These patients need fairly hands-on care as they often need assistance with toileting, eating and getting around, and some will need medication to assist with this. If caught early, some will initially worsen but often a good recovery is seen with time. Infectious causes may need ear flushes and long courses of antibiotics. 

Can we prevent any of this?

Both strokes and vestibular disease can occur very suddenly and in apparently healthy dogs. They can come as a huge shock. Sadly, there is not a lot that can be done to prevent them. Regular health checks, especially in older dogs, will help pick up on any underlying conditions. Which if left untreated may lead to further disease or predispose to conditions such as strokes. 

Other conditions

There are many other neurological disorders which affect dogs, such as epilepsy, meningitis and brain tumours among others. However they can have a wide range of symptoms ranging from behavioural changes to severe seizures. If you are at all concerned about your dog, arrange an appointment with a veterinary surgeon for a thorough examination and to talk through your concerns.

Neurological symptoms can be some of the most worrying to observe in a pet, especially if your dog is getting into their twilight years. Vestibular disease is much more common than strokes. It often carries a much better outcome for recovery, so try not to panic! Seeking veterinary advice is always sensible in these cases, and can be very reassuring.

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