Vestibular Disease, Seizure or Stroke? How to tell the difference.

Oct 26, 2020   Tracey Aston   Health & Wellness

Similar to humans, many conditions and diseases our pets suffer from can share similar symptoms and these conditions could vary from minor conditions to life-threatening! This can make diagnosing a pet even more frustrating for pet parents.  As always, if your pet is showing signs of distress, your veterinarian or pet wellness center should be your first stop.

A few of these conditions with similar symptoms are the non-life-threatening vestibular disease, serious seizures and potentially deadly stroke.

Vestibular disease, often referred to as old-dog disease, is a sudden onset of dizziness, disorientation motion sickness, head tilting, jerky eye movements and balance issues. As the name states, it is more common in senior dogs but fortunately, very treatable and not dangerous or painful but can be scary for the pet and pet parents.   Pet parents often confuse vestibular disease with a stroke or seizure due to the share symptoms due to the age of the pet, head tilt, disorientation and falling from balance issues.

The vestibular system is responsible for maintaining normal balance and has components located in the inner and middle ear.  Vestibular disease can be caused by ear infections, injury, trauma or tumors. Pets suffering from hypothyroidism are also more likely to develop vestibular disease. For some cases of vestibular disease, the reason is unknown and is diagnosed as idiopathic, meaning the cause and reason for it are unknown.

Vestibular disease is being diagnosed more often as more pet parents become aware of it. Prior to vestibular disease being well-known, pet parents would make rash decisions thinking their pet had a stroke or was in pain or the symptoms permanent.

Vestibular disease is most often diagnosed by its sudden onset and a process of elimination after testing for other neurological or blood disorders.  If the underlying condition is found, treating it will relieve the symptoms.  In cases of idiopathic vestibular disease, a sedative to help relax or medication for nausea, motion sickness and dizziness can often help with symptoms.  If a pet is having difficulty walking, slings or mobility aids can assist.  Most pets recover completely by 3 weeks, although some residual symptoms can remain, such as the head tilt.

More serious than vestibular disease, seizures in pets also can cause jerking eye movement, loss of balance and falling over.  Other symptoms of seizure can include, convulsions, limb rigidity, drooling, facial twitching, teeth chattering, , circling, rocking back and forth, tail chasing, loud vocalizations, loss of urinary and bowel control and loss of consciousness.

It's also important to note that not all seizures are the same and can present differently in different pets. The most common type of seizure is called a grand mal seizure - which is what most people think of when they hear the word seizure -  can cause full body convulsions, bladder and bowel elimination and loss of consciousness. These types of seizures normally last between a few seconds to a several minutes. If a pet is having a seizure for more than 5 minutes or has more than 1 seizure in a row, take them to your veterinarian immediately. Focal seizures are often more localized and cause symptoms such as usual movements in one limb, facial twitching, teeth chattering, rocking back and forth or tail chasing.  Again, not all pets will show all symptoms and even the same pet may show different symptoms for different seizures.

One of the main causes of seizures in pets is epilepsy, a condition requiring life-long treatment and medication, but other conditions can bring on seizures, such as eating poison, missing or overdosing on medications, heat stroke, liver disease, low or high blood sugar, severe anemia, head injury or trauma and encephalitis.  In cats, high levels of stress or anxiety can bring on seizures due to raised blood pressure.

If your pet is having a seizure, gently move them away from anything they could possibly injure themselves on and begin timing the seizure. Depending on the length and severity of the seizure, there is the potential for lasting, neurological effects. If possible, begin videotaping your pet as this may help the veterinarian with diagnosis and prognosis.  For seizures without a known cause, like epilepsy, start to track the seizures by marking down the day and time it happened, write down their day's activities and feedings to help your veterinarian diagnose the seizures and determine if the pet requires medications to control the seizures.  Stay away from your pet's mouth, as they may unintentionally bite you. You may gently reassure your pet in a calm manner that you are near.  Remember, this is a scary and disorienting experience for pets, so sometimes they will be confused and scared coming out of the seizure and may not immediately recognize their caregiver or other pets, which raises the risk of a bite.

The last condition is the most serious and that's a stroke. Strokes occur when a blood vessel becomes blocked, mostly likely by a blood clot. Pets with Cushing's disease, Hypertension, Heart disease, bleeding and clotting disorders, Hypothyroidism and Cancer are more susceptible to having a stroke.  Trauma to the head or chest, heart worm and parasites can also cause blood vessels to rupture.

The good news is that strokes not as common in animals as they are in humans but they can occur. The signs of a stroke can range from, dizziness, loss of sight in one or both eyes, dragging limbs, limping, head tilting, loss of bladder and bowel control, falling to one side, abnormal and jerking eye movements, loss of awareness of surroundings or people, howling or meowing in pain, change in personality, facial paralysis, and loss of consciousness.  If your pet is showing any of the above symptoms, they must immediately be taken to your veterinarian or a local animal hospital as treatment is critical in prognosis.

Strokes can have lasting effects such as limb paralysis, facial paralysis, hind end paralysis and blindness. If treatment was sought in a timely manner, some pets won't show any ill effects at all. A veterinarian may prescribe blood thinners or medications for hypertension to reduce the risk of another stroke. Still, healing will take time and a pet may need pain management, physical therapy and mobility aids to help with walking and supportive care for urinating or defecating.

While these 3 conditions all share many of the same symptoms, the seriousness and prognosis of the conditions vary greatly! If your pet is showing any of the above symptoms, it always best to seek veterinary care immediately to get a proper diagnosis. It's always better to hear your pet's condition is treatable and non-life-threatening than it is to wait too long and risk the pet's health. 

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