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Brain Injuries in Dogs: When to See a Vet

When it comes to caring for your dog’s various bumps and bruises, there is definitely a certain amount of discretion that must be applied. Rushing them to the vet every time they trip, fall and bump something may not be the wisest (or most affordable) choice. However, there are times when it is critical to get your dog to the vet–specifically when they have suffered a brain injury. However, it may not be the most obvious injury that determines whether your dog suffers from a brain injury.

Assessing a Brain Injury

Dogs suffer from a brain injury when they have experienced trauma that leads to some sort of neurological dysfunction. Fortunately, dogs can survive well even after the loss of a considerable amount of cerebral tissue. That said, a veterinarian needs to analyze any damage to stem structure and help control and reduce any possible brain swelling in order to aid the dog’s recovery. The complexity of brain injury, which can actually affect other body systems and even lead to cases of mortality and morbidity, makes it imperative that a dog receives immediate veterinary care.

Falls and vehicular accidents are the two most common ways for dogs to experience the trauma that leads to brain injury. The two categories of brain injuries include the primary injury, which is the actual trauma occurring and resulting in a physical disruption of the dog’s intracranial structures. Vascular tears of the artery that brings blood to the brain and hemorrhaging are part of the primary injury. A veterinarian seeking to treat a primary brain injury focuses their attention on mitigating damages so that there are no complications leading to secondary injury. Secondary brain injury brings further tissue damage and swelling, which increases intracranial pressure and a breakdown of the brain-blood barrier. An intracranial pressure increase can result in changes to the very make-up of the brain, blood and cerebrospinal fluid, which can result in oxygen deficiency or inadequate blood supply–both of which can be life-threatening.

When your dog has experienced a really obvious traumatic accident, such as a vehicular accident or a big fall, it may be safe to assume that they may be suffering from a brain injury as a result and they should see a veterinarian. Even if they haven’t suffered a brain injury, their health and physical condition should still be assessed in order to ensure that they aren’t suffering from other injuries or conditions that need address and treatment. If your dog has experienced a traumatic accident that you have not witnessed, it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether they are suffering from a brain injury as a result. The safest course of an accident is to bear in mind that any significant and sudden behavioral changes in your dog are always reason enough to check in with the veterinarian. Some specific signs of brain injury include: circling over and over, especially when they are excited or stressed, loss of body movement control in part or full, visible hemorrhaging in the ears, external cuts or lacerations on the head, loss of perception, facial weakness, loss of face sensation, lack of eyelid reflex, lack of appropriate eye response to light (the pupil remains dilated), and in very extreme cases you may even notice brain matter in the ear canal.

Diagnosing and Treating a Dog’s Brain Injury

When diagnosing a dog with a brain injury, the veterinarian will first look consider objective clinical signs, such as abnormal pupil dilation, evidence of external trauma and other issues. They may also check the packed cell volume and complete blood count, perform a serum analysis and check the blood glucose level and electrolyte level. Your dog’s mental status and reflex capabilities will be checked as well. A CT scan or MRI may be recommended in certain situations, as in the case that your dog is not responding to recommended medical therapy, but is not often undertaken immediately when there is a suspected brain injury because a dog must be heavily sedated for either of these tests, a course of action that is not always safe to undertake with a brain injury.

If it is determined that your dog does indeed have a brain injury, the veterinarian will focus first on ensuring proper airway, breathing and circulation function as these are vitally necessary for recovery. They will also work to control the acute effects of brain trauma (such as swelling) and monitor your dog’s condition for secondary infection. Depending on the severity of the brain injury, the veterinarian may treat it with anything from a nasal catheter and fluid therapy to pain and anxiety medications. Your dog’s nutrition will be an important part of their recovery, especially if they are hospitalized for some time and suffer weight loss as a result.

The veterinarian who is diagnosing and treating your dog is the best person to ask about your dog’s recovery prognosis. Recovery depends largely upon the exact type of damage done, the time lapse between injury and treatment, the dog’s age and physical condition, and their response to treatment. Some brain injuries are minimal and treatment can lead to full recovery, while others may be simply managed well and not ever fully recovered from. Your veterinarian’s job, with your close help and support, is to do their very best to return to your dog to a comfortable, healthy lifestyle following brain injury.

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