"Strokes" are problems associated with the brain, causing temporary or permanent damage. The good news is, strokes in dogs are often less catastrophic than they are in humans, however they are no less distressing for you and your pet. Seizures and the other symptoms of stroke are terrifying and usually totally unexpected.
If your dog is displaying stroke-like symptoms (loss of balance, head-tilt, confusion, drastic behavioral changes, loss of vision or especially seizure) DO NOT hesitate to call your vet or the local emergency clinic.
But take heart - with their wonderful ability to adapt, dogs recover much more readily than humans. Chances are you will have many more years with your furry friend, if you get the right diagnosis and have the patience to persevere.
There are three separate conditions that dogs suffer which are considered "strokes": Cerebrovascular accidents, which are rare, and strike without warning, IVD or Idiopathic Vestibular Disease, which is more common especially in older animals but more easily overcome, or heat stroke, not a true stroke, but with many of the same symptoms.
This relatively rare problem is similar to what we think of as a stroke in humans - reduced blood supply to the brain. There are two types, Ischaemic caused by a blockage (blood cot, fat, air), and Haemorrhagic caused by bleeding (a burst blood vessel).
Ischaemic strokes have been associated with kidney, heart and thyroid problems, diabetes, high-blood pressure, parasites or Cushing disease
In addition to the diseases leading to Ischaemic strokes, Haemorrhagic strokes have been also associated with consumption of rat poison (a blood thinner), angiostrongylosis (lung worm), head trauma or bleeding from a tumor.
The symptoms include circling, loss of vision or balance, head tilt, seizures, weakness or coma. These are symptoms of other problems as well, so a CT or MRI may be required for a definitive diagnosis.
Preventing Cerebrovascular stroke is problematic - it isn't as simple as a bowl of oatmeal or an aspirin a day. Keeping your dog on a healthy program of good food, regular exercise and weight control, and looking for the symptoms of stroke AND the associated conditions especially as your dog ages, are the best preventative measures.
If your dog has already had a stroke, finding the cause to prevent further stokes is critical - for example, if the cause is haemorrhagic, an aspirin would only make the bleeding worse.
The good news is that most dogs recover quickly within a matter of weeks, with a minimum of treatment. In rare cases, if a critical area of the brain has been effected, recovery may be slower or there may be more lingering problems.
IDIOPATHIC VESTIBULAR DISEASE (IVD)
Not a stroke in the strictest sense but producing similar symptoms, IVD is common more common in older dogs (and cats). IVD is a disorder of the body's balance systems, in particular the inner ear.
The symptoms include head tilt, wobbliness, lack of balance, staggering, confusion, seizures, eye flicker and/or vomiting. The disease is considered idiopathic, because the cause is not always known, but in reality anything from 'something' temporary to a life-threatening tumor may be the root cause.
If the cause is infection, such as an inner ear problem, the major symptoms will disappear when treating with antibiotics, although there may be a slight dysfunction such as a persistent head tilt. If caused by a tumor, the symptoms may progress. If the dog suffers from seizures*, they may continue to occur.
Again, keeping your dog healthy with a good diet and exercise is important. Unfortunately IVD is a part of the natural aging process for many dogs, and is almost impossible to prevent.
Fortunately, many dogs recover from the initial episode on their own or with a course of antibiotics. If your dog shows signs of recovery, severe relapses may be rare, although there may be good days and there may be distressing days. The wonderful thing about dogs is their ability to adapt and accept their circumstances, and to be happy with what they have.
Heat stroke is also not a true stroke, but the symptoms are similar - panting, weakness, confusion, dizziness, shock or coma. The tragedy of heat stroke is that is COMPLETELY PREVENTABLE, but hundreds of dogs suffer and die needlessly every year, because of ignorance and negligence.
Heat stroke is caused when the body can't maintain a safe temperature - for example if a dogs is exercising heavily in excessively hot/humid weather, left in a overheated vehicle or even chained in the hot sun, without shelter or water.
Dogs will keep going until they drop, so don't allow your pet to run himself ragged in very hot, humid weather. If you are exercising together, your dog will suffer from the heat sooner, so make sure you take breaks on their schedule - to cool down, rest and get enough fluids.
NEVER, EVER, EVER! leave your dog in a vehicle in full sun. If there is any risk of them being left in your car for even a few minutes without FULL shade, air-conditioning or water, leave them home! If you see an animal in distress in a vehicle, contact authorities immediately or break a window if necessary.
Make sure outside dogs have adequate shade and fresh water throughout the day.
Certain breeds (short-nosed dogs in particular) suffer more from extremes of temperature, they need to be protected from their own enthusiasm when the temperature rises.
Avoid walking your dog on hot sand, stones, concrete or asphalt in the heat of the day.
If despite your best efforts you suspect heat stroke, take your dog to a cool area immediately and reduce his temperature GRADUALLY with cool or lukewarm water. As soon as possible, take the animal to the vet. Most animals recover without problems, but if the stroke was severe, the damage to the brain may be permanent, special care may be required and your animal runs the risk of recurrence.
Damage to the brain can be severe and may be life-threatening, but often the damage is repaired or the animal learns quickly how to deal with any lingering effects. The best prevention is a healthy life-style - the best treatment (once you have visited your vet) is love and patience.
* Seizures are frightening and strike without warning. I have had two dogs who suffered reoccurring seizures as they aged, and apart from disorientation and being a bit tired the next day, they lived happily for several years after the initial episode.