Seizures and strokes are both scary prospects, and neither is something you want to have to watch happen to your beloved pet. They can look similar, but they have different causes and require different treatments. Knowing what to look for will help you know the difference and better equip you to stay calm and give Buster what he needs if either ever happens to him.
A seizure is caused by an electrical storm in the brain, which happens when too many neurons become overexcited. It's difficult to know what causes such a storm. Sometimes they can be caused by a brain injury, but seizures can also be genetic. During a generalized, or grand mal, seizure, the dog's muscles become stiff all over, usually with the legs stiff and the head back. The eyes may remain open, but the dog is unconscious during this phase, known as the "tonic" phase. It typically lasts about 30 seconds before transitioning into the "clonic" phase, during which the dog may jerk his limbs, make chomping motions with his jaw or move his head from side to side. Typically, this type of seizure lasts about two minutes.
A focal, or partial, seizure affects a small area of the brain, which usually results in a facial tick, excessive blinking, or jerking of the head. Focal seizures may be a symptom of brain damage, or the presence of a brain tumor. Complex focal seizures occur in the areas of the brain responsible for emotional and behavioral control and can result in altered, even bizarre, behavior. On rare occasions, a dog having a complex focal seizure can become aggressive. If you suspect your dog is having this type of seizure, it's generally best to give him space until it passes, and approach him with extreme caution.
While a stroke can resemble a type of seizure, it has a different root cause. Strokes are caused by either a blocked artery preventing blood from flowing to the brain or by bleeding in the brain caused by a burst blood vessel. The root cause can be high blood pressure, heart, kidney or thyroid disease, Cushing's disease, diabetes or even a brain tumor. Common canine stroke symptoms can include walking in circles, tilting the head from side to side, acting confused, lethargic or unbalanced, blindness, eating out of only one side of his dish or even collapse.
If your dog appears to be having a seizure, make sure he's in a safe place where he can't harm himself if he starts thrashing, then give him space until it's over. Afterward, he may need some space to recover; he might seek you out for reassurance or he might bounce right back as if nothing happened. If this is the first time he's had a seizure, he should see a veterinarian immediately to rule out toxins or other causes. If he has a history of seizures and has been diagnosed as epileptic, keep a journal that includes the time, date and length of each seizure, along with other details you notice, to help your vet know whether his medication should be adjusted. If you suspect that your dog has had a stroke, you should take him to a vet immediately.
Your vet will do blood work to rule out other causes for a seizure, such as poisoning. If your dog is diagnosed as epileptic, your vet will help you decide whether anti-seizure medication is in order. For dogs with seizures that are spaced weeks or months apart, it might be best to forego medication; for dogs who suffer seizures more frequently, medication can improve their quality of life. For a stroke, your vet will want to run a series of tests to verify the stroke and determine the root cause, which she'll want to treat to help prevent further strokes. She might also prescribe corticosteroids to reduce brain swelling. With treatment, dogs can recover quickly from strokes, although, depending on the degree of brain damage, some changes might be permanent.
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