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

Can my dog or cat have a stroke?

Yes, cats and dogs can have strokes, but they seem to occur less frequently in pets than they do in people. Pet owners often don’t notice signs of a mild stroke in their companions since animals can’t say that they feel dizzy, can only see out of one eye, or are having 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 are no longer carried to the brain, causing brain cells to die. A dog 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 and prevent blood and oxygen flow, which causes the tissue around the blood vessel to die. Other situations, like trauma, diseases, or clotting disorders, can cause vessels to rupture and cause blood to leak into the brain.

Can blood clots be lodged in other blood vessels besides the brain?

Yes. Blood clots can occlude 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. The cat then becomes suddenly and painfully paralyzed.

Our pets (hopefully) 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 is often 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 these diseases may suffer from higher stroke rates. Your veterinarian will be able to help you determine your dog's or cat’s risk for a stroke.

What signs indicate 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 falls victim to a stroke, signs often appear suddenly, but they may differ widely, depending on the area of the brain affected. You may notice these signs:

  • 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 for a good prognosis. Strokes are often confused with a fainting episode known as syncope that is also due to a lack of normal blood flow to the brain and is often 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 is often 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 also are often 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 your pet’s 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 part of the body, 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 help her with walking, urinating, and defecating.

Healing from a stroke 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.