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How can I tell if my pet has had a stroke?

Can my dog or cat have a stroke?

Cats and dogs can have strokes, but they seem to occur less frequently in pets than in people. Pet owners often don’t notice signs of a mild stroke in their companions since animals can’t tell you when they feel dizzy, lose sight in one eye, or have memory problems. Unfortunately, pets usually experience strokes on a grander scale than people and require immediate veterinary attention.

What is a stroke?

A stroke occurs when a blood vessel becomes blocked or narrows so blood and oxygen no longer are carried to the brain, causing brain cells to die. Dogs will exhibit different neurological signs depending on damage severity and the part of the brain affected.

What causes strokes in dogs?

Most strokes involve blood clots, but some are caused by tumor cells, bacteria, and parasites. This material can become lodged in a blood vessel, preventing blood and oxygen flow, which causes the tissue around the blood vessel to die. Other situations, such as trauma, disease, or clotting disorders, can cause vessels to rupture and blood to leak into the brain.

Can clots lodge in blood vessels outside the brain?

Yes. Blood clots can block vessels in any part of the body. A common and dramatic condition in cats called feline aortic thromboembolism, or a “saddle thrombus,” is caused by a blood clot that lodges in the aorta (the largest artery in the body) right before it splits to provide blood to the rear legs, causing the cat to become suddenly and painfully paralyzed.

Our pets don’t eat greasy foods, smoke, or drink alcohol, which are the most common risk factors for many human stroke victims, so pinpointing the exact cause of strokes in dogs and cats is difficult. Underlying disease often is the culprit. Dogs and cats who have been diagnosed with the following diseases are at increased risk of a stroke:

  • Cushing’s disease (hyperadrenocorticism)
  • Hypertension
  • Heart disease (especially in cats)
  • Bleeding disorders
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Cancer

No specific breed has been linked to a higher incidence of strokes, but breeds prone to the diseases above might suffer from higher stroke rates. Your veterinarian can help determine your dog's or cat’s risk.

What are the signs my pet might be having a stroke?

Cats tend to have dramatic signs if they experience a saddle thrombus, including:

  • Howling or meowing in pain
  • Dragging one or both hind legs
  • Limping on a front leg

If your dog has a stroke, signs often appear suddenly, but may differ widely, depending on the area of the brain affected. You may notice:

  • A head tilt
  • Difficulty walking
  • Loss of housetraining
  • Change in personality
  • Less awareness of surroundings
  • Abnormal eye movement or positioning
  • Falling/listing to one side
  • Blindness
  • Seizures

What should I do if I think my pet has had a stroke or saddle thrombus?

If your cat or dog is showing any signs that potentially indicate a stroke, contact your veterinarian immediately. Prompt diagnosis and treatment is critical. Strokes often are confused with a fainting episode known as syncope that also is due to a lack of normal blood flow to the brain, commonly caused by heart disease. Your veterinarian will perform a cardiac evaluation to determine whether your pet’s episode is due to syncope or a stroke and may recommend chest X-rays, an electrocardiogram, or a cardiac ultrasound to differentiate between the two diagnoses.

If your dog’s heart is healthy, your veterinarian will evaluate her brain function and may refer her to a specialist for an MRI or CT scan to check for brain blockages or bleeding. Additional testing, such as bloodwork, hormone-level testing, urinalysis, and a blood-pressure reading often is recommended to determine the root cause of the inappropriate blood flow in the brain.

Cats suffering from a feline aortic thromboembolism require intensive and aggressive therapy. In addition to paralyzed and painful rear legs, they often also are suffering from heart failure. Your veterinarian may recommend transferring to an ICU-type setting for continuous monitoring.

Once your veterinarian has diagnosed the cause of the stroke, she will develop a treatment plan to alleviate the symptoms. Your pet may need hormone therapy for hypothyroidism, blood thinners to break up a clot, or blood-pressure stabilizers to combat hypertension.

As your pet’s body works to restore proper blood flow to the affected area, the signs often diminish. Supportive care is vital to your pet’s recovery from a stroke, and you may need to provide oxygen and fluid therapy, pain medication, nutritional management, and physical therapy as well as helping her with walking, urinating, and defecating.

Healing takes time. If your pet suffers from a stroke, you must provide supportive care to ensure the best chance for a full recovery. Lean on your AAHA-accredited veterinary team for aid in your pet’s recuperation.