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Comas in Dogs – Diagnosis, Treatment and Recovery

Picture of a Boston Terrier on black

Coma can be defined as a depressed level of consciousness. In most cases, it is a sign of a severe medical problem. A dog can be unconscious, completely unresponsive, and yet have a pulse if he or she has slipped into a coma.

In this article, we’ll look at the causes of comas in dogs, how comas are diagnosed at the vet, what the right type of treatment could be, and whether there is any prevention for this health issue. 

What causes a coma in Dogs?

Coma can occur in a wide range of conditions, and they range from encephalitis, brain tumors, and brain swelling to oxygen deprivation and poisoning. There are also some diseases that can cause seizures which can progress to coma. A head injury is another possible cause as it leads to a concussion in many situations.

Another somewhat common cause of coma is hypoglycemia. The latter occurs more frequently in adult hunting dogs that have spent a lot of time running and consuming energy in the field, but it can also be found to occur more often in toy-breed puppies, too. 

Giving too much insulin to a dog that suffers from diabetes can cause low blood sugar, as well, so this can be another cause. Hypothermia causes low blood sugar and can lead to coma. 

High fever and heat stroke can lead to brain damage and seizures, so they, too, can cause coma. 

Here are some factors that can cause encephalopathy:

  • Kidney failure
  • Liver failure
  • Low blood sugar
  • Imbalance of calcium or sodium
  • Lack of oxygen
  • Infectious diseases that cause meningitis and encephalitis

As we have previously mentioned, coma can be caused by toxic substances. Here is a short list of some of the most common ones that can lead to this severe condition.

Symptoms of comas in dogs

Since there are several kinds of comas, there isn’t a universal set of clinical signs that are discernible in a dog that is about to go unresponsive. Generally, though, dogs that are about to suffer from this severe medical problem are disoriented, they might want to sleep or rest, they might have a hard time getting up, or they might become unconscious.

If your dog begins to fail to recognize people or objects around him or her or if you notice that he/she starts to stumble into walls or objects, this can be another sign of a serious neurologic issue. 

As for the types of coma, an anoxic brain injury usually causes lack of oxygen to the point that death occurs in a matter of minutes. Toxic metabolic encephalopathy is caused by organ failure and can be very hard, if not impossible to treat. And yet, it’s one of the most reversible conditions. 

Brain death and a persistent vegetative state involve either the cessation of any brain function or the continuation of life functions, but without conscious awareness. 

In general, pet parents have to be on the lookout for basic symptoms such as unresponsiveness to touch or sound and periods of absent or decreased consciousness. 

Diagnosis

If you notice any of the changes that we have mentioned above, take your canine friend to the vet as soon as possible. Any neurological problem calls for immediate medical assistance because in this case, time is of the essence. 

Your vet will ask you several questions such as the following:

  • When did you notice the first symptom?
  • Has this occurred in the past?
  • How long did the last episode last?
  • Did you notice your dog eating or drinking something suspicious or do you believe that he/she had access to any toxic substances?
  • Does your dog suffer from diabetes, heart disease, epilepsy, chronic liver and kidney problems, or any other disease that might be contributing to this condition?

The veterinarian will then assess just how conscious your dog is. In animals, there are 5 levels of consciousness. The normal one doesn’t involve any symptoms, a depressed one is when the dog has a lowered response to stimuli and constantly wants to sleep, and a demented level involves the dog being irritable, hyperactive, or with an inappropriate response to stimuli. 

Stupor happens when the dog doesn’t respond to any normal stimuli, but that will occur if the stimuli are strong or pain-inducing. For instance, in this case, a dog might react to a toe pinch or pain, in general, even though none of the other stimuli cause a reaction.

If the dog is comatose, unresponsiveness is universal no matter the stimuli. 

Some of the standard diagnostic tests that will be performed at the vet clinic range from a CBC and serum chemistry analysis to urinalysis, an X-ray, an EKG, or a CT scan. 

Treatment 

Treating coma, stupor, or decreased consciousness can be extremely challenging and choosing the right therapy depends on the anamnesis (the information that the vet has gathered from the pet parent) and the results of the tests performed. Symptomatic treatment consists of oxygen and IV fluids.

If an exposure to a toxic substance is suspected, atropine could be administered, but it’s risky seeing how it also slows down heart rate. That’s why it is not commonly utilized. If epilepsy is at the root of the stupor or coma, the dog can receive specific treatment.

Prevention and recovery

There is no way of preventing coma or stupor, but you can pay attention to what your dog nibbles on when you go to the park and generally keep him safe from potentially toxic substances of any kind. If you care for a diabetic dog, make sure that you are extremely cautious when giving him/her insulin treatment so as to avoid causing low blood sugar. 

If you care for a dog with kidney or liver failure, create a plan in terms of administering the treatment. 

Brain damage is possible if your dog does recover from stupor and coma. This means that your canine friend might have a different level of awareness or could lose mobility in certain parts of his/her body. 

You will have to adjust your lifestyle in accordance with your pet’s needs following a stupor or comatose episode. A dog can also recover completely, in some cases, but most patients will remain with some type of disability for the rest of their life. 

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