We often discuss seizures in the world of pet health, but strokes are talked about less frequently. Strokes are a relatively common health emergency in people and also occur in dogs.
The symptoms of both conditions are alarming to pet parents. Strokes are almost always an emergency; severe seizures can also require immediate treatment. This guide will explore the causes of strokes vs. seizures in dogs, discuss signs to watch for, and more.
As always, immediately take your dog to the nearest emergency veterinarian if you observe sudden or severe health changes.
What are Strokes?
A stroke occurs when blood flow to a brain area is severely reduced or blocked (1). Clinically, loss of blood flow is called ischemia. Doctors may also refer to a stroke as a cerebrovascular accident (CVA). Strokes are thought to be much rarer in dogs than in people.
In dogs and humans, strokes can result from blood clots (ischemic stroke) or broken blood vessels near the brain (hemorrhagic stroke). Stroke symptoms in dogs depend on which region of the brain is affected. Without rapid treatment, strokes may cause permanent damage or death.
What are Seizures?
Seizures in dogs are sudden, uncontrolled disturbances in the brain's electrical activity (2). Unlike strokes, seizures are relatively common in dogs. They may not cause permanent damage unless severe, extended, or clustered episodes occur.
Recurrent seizures in dogs usually stem from an underlying health issue. Epilepsy is the most common cause of dog seizures; this disease is more common in certain breeds. Anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) are often prescribed to manage recurrent seizures.
Key Forms of Stroke
Strokes can be classified into two broad categories. Ischemic strokes occur when the blood supply to a brain region is blocked. Hemorrhagic strokes happen when a blood vessel ruptures. Determining the type of stroke is critical for appropriate treatment.
Why Do Dogs Have Strokes?
Strokes in dogs can be random or related to an existing health condition. Heart valve defects and infections in the heart (endocarditis) can release a plug (embolus) that lodges in a brain blood vessel, leading to ischemic stroke. Diabetes, Cushing's disease, kidney disease, cancer, and parasites like heartworm can also cause ischemic stroke.
Hemorrhagic strokes can occur randomly or result from an underlying disease. While both types of stroke are uncommon in dogs, hemorrhagic strokes are often related to cancer and bleeding disorders.
What are The Signs of Stroke in Dogs?
Symptoms of a stroke in dogs depend on the brain region affected. Additionally, both types of stroke can cause similar symptoms.
Generally, strokes in dogs are marked by sudden-onset neurological problems that were not present before. Signs may include:
- Loss of balance
- Weakness on one or both sides of the body
- Difficulty walking or sitting upright
- Turning or circling to one side
- Abnormal eye movements
- Persistent head tilt
Immediate veterinary care is essential for proper stroke diagnosis and treatment.
Seizures vs. Strokes in Dogs: What's The Difference?
Both strokes and seizures affect the brain. Strokes result from blood flow issues, while seizures are related to electrical disturbances.
Clinically, the symptoms of strokes and seizures often overlap. Contact your veterinarian if you think your dog has had a stroke or seizure. Your vet will perform tests to ensure proper diagnosis and treatment for your dog.
Common signs of a seizure in dogs include:
- Loss of consciousness
- Falling over
- Rhythmic, jerking limb movements (convulsions)
- Loss of bladder/bowel control
- Repetitive limb or head movements without loss of consciousness (focal seizure)
Clots & Vessels Outside The Brain
Blood clots and emboli can lodge in vessels outside the brain. However, this scenario is unlikely to cause a stroke. Other complications like lung or heart issues would be observed instead, depending on the affected area.
Is Canine Vestibular Disease Similar to Stroke?
Canine vestibular disease can mimic the signs of a stroke (3). It can range from mild to severe and is caused by deep ear infections, tumors, and other conditions.
This disease is most common in senior dogs, leading to the nickname "old dog vestibular syndrome." Your veterinarian will perform tests to decide which problem is causing your dog's symptoms.
Your Dog Had a Stroke - What Do You Do?
Immediate veterinary care is essential if you suspect your dog has had a stroke. Like with people, every minute counts to control the damage and start appropriate treatment.
How Strokes are Diagnosed
Diagnosis of a stroke may involve:
- Thorough physical examination
- Neurological examination
- Blood tests
- Advanced imaging (CT scan or MRI)
Early diagnosis leads to more effective treatment and can help prevent future episodes.
Understanding the differences between stroke and seizure is helpful for any dog owner. Strokes are considered uncommon in dogs, while seizures are frequently diagnosed in pets. The symptoms of these conditions can be similar, so always consult your veterinarian if you observe sudden neurological symptoms.