Bell's Palsy in Canines

Older cocker spaniels have a higher risk of facial paralysis.
Jupiterimages/ Images

If your dog’s normally perky face suddenly droops on one side, he has sustained some damage to the facial nerve that controls his facial muscles. When the cause is unknown, the condition in dogs is referred to as idiopathic facial nerve paralysis. The condition is similar to what is known as Bell’s palsy in humans. Your faithful friend’s new droopy look may dishearten you, but his quality of life remains unaffected.

Determining Causes and Predisposing Factors

Facial paralysis can result from trauma, such as being struck by a car; it can also occur in dogs who have suffered severe inner ear infections and in dogs with unregulated hypothyroidism. If these scenarios are ruled out, the diagnosis of idiopathic facial nerve paralysis is made. The affected facial nerve is the seventh cranial nerve, which stems from the back of the brain and controls muscles in the lips, ears, eyelids and nose. An electromyography may determine the extent of damage that this nerve has sustained. The condition can strike any middle-age dog, but cocker spaniels, Pembroke Welsh corgis, boxers and English setters share an increased risk.

From Ears to Mouth: Symptoms

The symptoms of idiopathic facial nerve paralysis vary with the extent of nerve damage. They can occur on one or both sides of the face, and they can be permanent or temporary. In a dog whose that normally stand up, one ear may flop down. An eyelid may droop, and your dog will be unable to blink. The size of his pupils may not match one another. His nose may bend to one side. A drooping lip may cause your dog to drool excessively and drop food while eating. You may notice a head tilt, but overall you are likely to observe that his facial features are no longer symmetrical.

Unknown Cause Yields Little Treatment

When facial paralysis is the secondary result of a known cause, efforts are made to treat the initiating problem. Inner ear infections are treated with a course of antibiotics or surgical drainage. Hypothyroidism is managed and monitored with medication and blood testing. Despite such treatments, the effects of facial paralysis are often permanent. When there is no known cause, as with idiopathic facial nerve paralysis, there is nothing to treat. The one treatment that is imperative is the regular use of lubricating eye drops. Since your dog is unable to blink, his eyes will dry, increasing his risk for developing corneal damage. Your veterinarian will prescribe lubricating ophthalmic drops or ointment and monitor your dog’s ocular health.

Living Normally With Minor Adjustments

In addition to ophthalmic lubricating drops and regular examinations, there is very little that you will need to do at home. Your buddy may be a slightly sloppier diner than he used to be, so you may need to offer him soft food that will be easier for him to eat. You may want to place his bowls on a rimmed, washable place mat to catch any dribbles. These are minor adjustments to make in exchange for the unconditional love that he gives you every day. Once you become accustomed to his new facial countenance, you will realize that your lovable, droopy dog is happy and still has an excellent quality of life to share with his family.