By Dr. Becker
Therapy dogs bring unconditional love and support to patients in hospitals across the U.S., but CNN recently featured the story of one particularly special therapy dog: a golden retriever named Casper who visits children at Children’s Health Care of Atlanta.
Lisa Kinsel, his handler, told CNN, “He's like a big sponge … I think that's what makes him work so well with the patients. He knows that the child is maybe anxious, maybe in pain, and so when he's there to help them, he sort of soaks that all in. And it helps eliminate their stress."1
Adored not only by the children but also their parents and the staff, they were dismayed when Casper couldn’t come on his regular rounds because he was having health problems of his own. The dog, who recently turned 9 years old, had suffered from a stroke that left him weak on his left side.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Stroke in Dogs?
Strokes are sometimes referred to as “heart attacks in the brain.” They’re caused by a disruption of blood supply to the area, which deprives the brain of vital nutrients and oxygen.
Most often, strokes in dogs (and cats) are caused by a blood clot (ischemic strokes) although they can also be caused by bleeding in the brain (hemorrhagic strokes).
As in people, the faster your pet receives treatment for a stroke, the better the outcome can be, but it wasn't until fairly recently that the veterinary community realized that dogs and cats suffer from stroke perhaps more frequently than we thought.
Initial treatment typically involves intravenous fluids and IV corticosteroids to control brain swelling and support blood circulation to the brain.
Giving corticosteroids immediately can be life-saving and help prevent permanent damage, so if you think your pet is having a stroke, get him to an emergency animal hospital immediately. Symptoms typically come on suddenly and can include:
✓ Head tilt
✓ Abnormal eye movements (nystagmus) or eye positioning
✓ Difficulty walking or inability to walk
✓ Loss of bowel control
✓ Loss of balance
✓ Persistent circling
✓ Inappropriate urination
✓ Loss of coordination
✓ Sudden vision impairment
✓ Other sudden behavioral changes
Rehabilitation Helped Casper Recover After Stroke
Once your dog has stabilized, the neurologic symptoms of a stroke gradually resolve on their own as the animal's body re-establishes normal blood flow to the brain and swelling resolves. During this period, acupuncture, antioxidants (SOD and astaxanthin), Chinese herbs and homeopathy can be very beneficial.
The most crucial supplement to add for these patients, in my opinion, is nattokinase, which can also help prevent additional strokes from occurring. The brain has the ability to recover given time and physical therapy can help your dog to regain strength and function, as occurred in Casper’s case. According to CNN:2
“Casper's stroke created a deficit on his left side, which was weakened, leaving him unsure where his front left paw was hitting.
[Dr. Kimberly] Neff [at Georgia Veterinary Rehab] worked with him every week to regain his muscle strength. Part of Casper's therapy included an underwater treadmill, providing exercise without putting too much pressure on his joints.”
Therapy Dogs Provide Priceless Benefits
Casper has already made some short visits to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where he’s been sorely missed, and it’s hoped that he’ll be able to return to his beloved hospital rounds.
Casper and other therapy dogs like him provide invaluable help to hospitalized children, easing their fears and even acting as a distraction during medical procedures.
Some therapy dogs even walk the halls with children learning to use a prosthesis, providing invaluable motivation, while others help to reduce anxiety and pain.3
Therapy dogs are often brought into schools facing crises, trauma and grief, so it makes sense that even the health care providers at Children’s found welcome relief from their stressful positions when Casper came around. Kinsel told CNN:4
"That was one of the things we really didn't think about when we started this … It was all about the patients and families.
And then more and more, we were finding that the staff were calling and saying, 'We've had a really rough day in Intensive Care today. Will you please bring him up? Because the staff need to see him.'"
Casper, who lives with a full-time hospital staff member, is considered a full-time employee of the hospital, complete with his own badge. You can see a sweet video of Casper in action below and help to honor his service by keeping an eye out for signs of stroke in your own dog at home.
Signs your pet is having a stroke include a head tilt, difficulty walking and abnormal eye movements (nystagmus). If you notice these signs, get him to your veterinarian or an emergency animal hospital right away for the best chance he’ll be able to make a full recovery just like Casper.