Could My Dog Have a Stroke?

Senior dog
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Q. Do dogs have strokes like people do?

A. We used to think they didn't, but newer research suggests they do. But not all stroke-like behaviors mean your dog has had a stroke — what seem to be a stroke in an older dog may instead be something called Old Dog vestibular Disease, or ODV. The good news about ODV is that even though it can be very frightening for owners to see their pets stricken, for most dogs the symptoms generally resolve pretty quickly. It’s one of those health problems that when you see it as a veterinarian, you know that you’re going to be able to deliver some positive news. And you don’t get to do that too often with elderly pets, where you're often just buying time as chronic problems worsen.

What is ODV?

ODV typically comes on suddenly, and symptoms include difficulty standing or walking, rapid eye movements (usually from side to side), loss of balance, head tilt and vomiting attributed to something akin to motion sickness. Think about how you felt as a child when you made yourself intentionally dizzy or rode the Tilt-a-Whirl at the fair, and you'll get a sense of how your pet feels. For these pets, though, the spinning feeling can continue for days.

When an elderly dog presents with symptoms of ODV, the veterinarian will usually do a complete examination and possibly conduct some basic laboratory tests to rule out other health issues or the worsening of known health issues. If nothing else appears, a dog with ODV may be hospitalized for nursing care, or sent home if the owners are willing and able to provide TLC for the next few days. As they’re recovering, these dogs will typically need help walking and relieving themselves and will need to be coaxed to eat. An anti-nausea medication may be prescribed to help keep food down.

How Long Does Recovery Take?

Some dogs bounce back within a couple of days, while others may take a couple of weeks. Some dogs suspected of having ODV do not recover and may be diagnosed with a brain tumor. For this minority of suspected ODV dogs, the outcome isn’t as good.

We don’t really know what causes ODV. Because of its sudden onset and terrifying symptoms, ODV is one problem people with elderly dogs ought to know about. Realizing that your collapsed old friend is likely to recover just fine will help with your own stress level as you head for your veterinarian's office with your pet.

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