This afternoon Jet had a syncope episode.
He has had them before and I’ve posted about them before here on Philosophy of Dog.
This afternoon was the first time that it didn’t happen in the comfort of our home, though.
Jet was out in the front yard with his dad when it happened and he went down fast.
I was in the living room at the time and I hear Jet’s dad shouting for me to come quickly.
When I got out there, Jet was in the throes of his syncopic episode. He was exhaling quickly with his lips blowing outward, his body was stiffening and his eyes were closed.
I knew it would be over soon, but as he lay there with his limbs outstretched and tightened, his eyes closed, I could feel my own heart racing.
“It’s happened before,” I told myself.
“It’ll be over soon.” I thought.
“Just don’t panic.”
This afternoon’s incident was nothing new for us.
It’s not something that happens frequently, but it has happened enough that we know what it is when it does happen.
Even though we know what syncope is, however, it doesn’t stop it from being scary, nerve-wracking, and upsetting.
So, today, in an effort to help other dog parents of dogs that experience syncope, I want to share with you what you should do when your dog has a syncope episode.
Firstly, if you aren’t familiar with syncope, what it is, what causes it, and how it compares to other similar conditions, I suggest reading my series of articles “Senior Dog Syncope, Seizures, Stroke, and Heart Attack.”
Secondly, it is important for you to remain calm when your dog does experience an episode (or any type of health emergency.) Do your best to stay calm, and note any and all symptoms that you can. If this is the first time that your dog has experienced an episode, this information is going to help your vet to identify what type of episode your dog experienced and help them to know where to look for the cause.
If this is the first time that your dog has experienced an episode, this information is going to help your vet to identify what type of episode your dog experienced and help them to know where to look for the cause.
Remember, to the untrained eye, syncope can often be confused with seizures, stroke, or heart attack, so it is important for you to note as many details about your dog’s episode as possible. If you have someone else on hand who can record the event with their phone or mobile device, this will assist your vet even more, but keep in mind that your main priority is always going to be caring for your dog.
When your dog has a syncopic episode, unlike a seizure, you will get little warning that an episode is about to happen. Occasionally, you may notice symptoms that indicate lightheadedness or an episode may be preceded by coughing, but most often, you will only see your dog fall.
If your dog is already lying down when their syncopic episode takes place you will obviously not see this fall, but you will see the characteristic “pose” that happens with syncope.
As I have said before, a dog during a syncope episode will often take on the appearance of a fossilized dinosaur in the “death pose.” Not sure what I’m talking about? Take a look…
By Traumador the Tyrannosaur (Peter and the Albertosaurus)
[CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The neck obviously doesn’t go back quite so far, but it is certainly bent back and upwards with a curvature to the neck. The front legs tend to stretch straight out in front of the dog’s body and the back legs straighten and stretch down and back to an angle. Both sets of legs are stiff and the muscles of the body stiffen as well. The dog may or may not cry or yelp as this happens, but they will breathe quickly and with shallow breaths that often cause the lips to blow outwards.
So, what do you do when this happens?
Obviously, once the episode is over, you need to consult with your veterinarian to determine and address the underlying cause of your dog’s syncope. But what do you do when a syncopic episode happens? In that very moment, what do can you do to help your dog?
What Should You Do When Your Dog Faints?
When your dog faints or has a syncopic episode, your first task is going to be making sure that they are safe and in a comfortable location.
As with any dog that has been incapacitated, move anything potentially harmful out of their reach. This includes things that could fall on them and things that they could strike against as their body stiffens.
You do not need to put a pillow under their head or cover them, a syncopic episode will be over quite quickly.
You DO want to reassure them. Talk to them calmly and if you can do so without getting hurt, you can pet them gently.
If this is the first time that your dog has had an episode like this, take note of their heart rate. Is it very fast or very slow? This can provide a clue to your veterinarian as to the cause of this episode.
When Jet has his syncopic episodes, I usually stroke his neck gently and sit with him while I tell him softly “It’s okay, mommy’s right here.”
When you do pet your dog, be aware that the first instinct once the first few seconds of syncope are over, is going to be jumping up. They are going to be shocked as they come to, but more often than not they are going to try to jump up before they have recovered their faculties.
What does this mean? In basic terms, it means that their limbs are still going to be outstretched and stiff so that despite struggling to get up, they won’t be able to get to their feet. This will cause them to panic.
When this happens, gently reassure your dog and do what you can to carefully keep them on the floor until they have fully recovered. You will be able to tell when your dog has recovered all of their faculties when their legs are no longer stiffened and outstretched. You will also notice a relaxation of the muscles in the body.
Note that these syncopic episodes are brief and should not last more than a couple of seconds. If your dog loses consciousness for more than a couple of seconds it is imperative to get them to the emergency vet immediately since a lack of proper blood flow and oxygen can cause major health complications.
When Jet begins to struggle to get up, I gently hold him to the floor while petting him and talking to him softly. This keeps him where he is until I release him when I know that he is fully able to get to his feet.
If you have a large dog that is less cooperative, you may get headbutted (we all know how much that hurts!) when your dog struggles to get up, so make sure that you are aware of your own safety as well as that of your dog!
Once your dog gets to their feet, you want to get them to a safer location if they are not in one already. For example, Jet’s incident this morning was in the front yard and it was blazing hot. Since heat is not only uncomfortable, but it also creates problems due to Jet’s heart disease, we guided him inside and lay him on his bed in the air conditioning.
IF you are concerned that this may be an emergency situation, get your dog into your vehicle and transport them immediately to your vet. If you are not concerned that this is an emergency, it is still necessary to go to the vet, but you can give your dog a few minutes to recover beforehand.
Encourage your dog to lie down and rest for a few minutes. They are not likely going to want to take food or water until they have fully recovered from being startled. During this time, take note of your dog’s heart rate again and make note of it.
As your dog recuperates, you should also check their breathing to ensure normal breathing. You also need to check your dog’s gums for proper coloration and capillary refill time.
If your dog’s gums are pale it may be a sign of shock. It is VERY important to get your dog to the vet immediately if you notice this symptom. As you travel to the vet, you may find that having someone else drive you and rubbing a small amount of honey or Karo syrup on your dog’s gums. Just the sugar provided by these can help your dog to rally around. We ALWAYS keep a bottle of honey on hand for this purpose.
When checking capillary refill time you want to gently press your finger on your dog’s gums until they blanch. When you release your finger the gums will be white but should turn to their normal healthy red color within 1 to 2 seconds. If it takes longer for your dog’s gum color to return to normal you need to get your dog to the emergency vet. Slow capillary refill time is indicative of a circulatory problem.
If you have noticed no gum color changes, heart rate abnormalities, and capillary refill time is normal, let your dog rest until they have composed themselves. Once your dog is stable and a little more like their normal self, call your vet to explain what has happened. They should ask you to come in to see them in order to run tests to find the cause of your dog’s syncopic episode. If your vet does not ask you to come in and your dog has not had an episode like this addressed by your vet before, we highly suggest finding another vet.