Last night, or should I say this morning, at around 5:30am, Jet had a syncopal episode.
Jet has had this happen before, it’s a direct result of his heart disease. Last night’s episode was the worst yet, though.
As I sat with him, comforting him, I remembered the first time that it happened and how confused we both were. So today, I wanted to address syncope in senior dogs and other concerns that are often confused with syncope – seizures, stroke, and heart attack.
What is Syncope?
Let’s begin by taking a look at syncope.
Syncope is a loss of consciousness that is most frequently caused by a drop in heart rate or blood pressure that causes insufficient blood flow to the brain. It can happen in humans and in our pets. Syncope in dogs is sometimes referred to as “fainting.”
Syncope in dogs is sometimes referred to as “fainting.” It is a SYMPTOM and not a disease.
What Causes Syncope?
There are a few different causes of syncope, ultimately anything that causes a sudden drop in heart rate or blood pressure and insufficient blood flow to the brain. The two main categories of illness that cause syncope are neurological or cardiological in origin.
Neurological Causes of Syncope
Neurological illnesses that can cause syncope in dogs include:
- Any abnormal brain activity
Cardiological Causes of Syncope
Cardiological illnesses that can cause syncope in dogs include:
- Ventricular fibrillation
- A-V block
- Abnormal heart rhythm
- Ventricular tachycardia
Other Causes of Syncope
In some situations, syncope can also be prompted by other events including:
- Pulling on the collar
What Happens During a Syncopic Episode?
When a dog experiences syncope, blood flow to the brain is insufficient. Most often this happens in older dogs with heart disease or abnormal heart rhythms. The alteration in heart function results in an alteration of the blood flowing to the brain which results in an alteration of the amount of oxygen being provided to the brain. This can result in episodes of syncope.
Syncopic episodes last from seconds to minutes and dogs spontaneously recover following them.
Syncope is NOT a very common occurrence in dogs, but when it is seen 2/3 of patients also have heart disease. It is estimated that around .15% of dogs experience syncope – the only problem with this figure is that owners often confuse syncope episodes with “simple” fainting, seizures, or other similar symptoms.
What Does a Syncopic Episode Look Like?
When Jet had his first syncopic episode I thought it was a stroke.
I knew it wasn’t a seizure because I have experience witnessing canine seizures.
When he has a syncopic episode, Jet usually coughs once or twice. Then he takes a couple of deep breaths in through his nose and as he breathes out, his lips puff out. If he is standing or sitting, he falls onto one side. Sometimes his legs will flail, sometimes he will lay there. He then leans his head back just slightly. His front legs stiffen out straight and then his back becomes rigid. His head arches back, creating a prominent curve in his neck.
If you have ever seen Jurassic Park or have experience in paleontology, this pose is similar to the “death pose” of many fossilized remains. (You can read more about it here at the American Museum of Natural History.)
Here is an image of a dog during a syncopic episode. The dog’s name is Teddy.
Jet stays in this curved neck pose for a few seconds most of the time while breathing deeply. You can hear each breath coming in through his nose as if he were sleeping heavily. His eyes tend to fixate and blank out while still open. After a few seconds, his neck will start to relax and his front legs will unstiffen as he “comes to.”
Last night for the first time during a syncopal episode Jet cried out. He whimpered in an almost squealing pitch three times before his body unstiffened.
After unstiffening, Jet will be tired. For around fifteen minutes his breathing will be shallower than normal and then he will get back to normal breathing. He will then sleep hard for a few hours and upon waking up he will be back to his normal self. Once in a while, Jet will jump right up from a syncopal episode and act like nothing happened.
See a syncopal episode in “action” in this video that Teddy’s owner posted to YouTube.
If your dog experiences syncope, you should visit your vet as soon as possible. In most instances, if your dog’s syncope is the result of an existing condition that is being treated, your vet will re-evaluate your dog’s condition to determine if any changes in treatment need to be made. If your dog has not been diagnosed with a condition already, the first thing that your vet is likely to check is your dog’s heart health.
What Should You Do When Your Dog Experiences Syncope?
When your dog experiences syncope your first instinct is likely going to be shock or fear.
Since syncope episodes tend to be quite short, you probably still be panicking when your dog has regained consciousness.
If you are able to maintain your composure, however, you should first reassure your dog. Let them know in a calming voice that you are there and if you feel comfortable, you can stroke them gently. You should also try to get a general idea of your dog’s heart rate during their syncope episode. You don’t have to count the beats of their heart, but you should try to determine whether your dog’s heart is beating very quickly or very slowly, this information will help your vet in making a diagnosis.
If you are able, you should also try to take a brief video of your dog during their syncope episode. This is going to provide accurate documentation of your dog’s episode so that your vet can make a more educated diagnosis of your dog’s condition.
Most importantly, when your dog experiences syncope, you should stay with them until they regain consciousness and are breathing normally. Once this happens, you should contact your vet as soon as possible to arrange for diagnosis or treatment.