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Q:  My dog Spike is an 11-year old Bull terrier, who has been in good health until recently.  Several months ago, he began having episodes of falling; it appears as if his back legs simply fail and he collapses to the floor.  He does not lose conscientiousness and does not seem to be in pain when this occurs, but he is visibly frightened and becomes anxious afterwards The entire episode lasts only about a minute and there seems to be no precipitating factors.  It almost seems as if he looses his balance; initially, I thought he was having a seizure or a stroke. .When Spike falls, his back legs splay out and he must be assisted back to his feet by me.

I am writing because these episodes have increased in frequency, from monthly to almost daily now. I am concerned for my dog’s safety because we have many stairs in our home.  He has always been very active and was racing around like a puppy when he had a falling episode last night.

Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate any advice you can give me regarding my best friend Spike.

A:  The signs Spike is displaying can result from abnormalities in a variety of organ systems:  orthopedic disease, spinal cord disease, cardiac disease or a partial seizure disorder.  I will detail them below but having your veterinarian evaluate your dog and view a videotape of the episode can help narrow down the possible cause.

Given the episodic nature of the signs, orthopedic or spinal cord diseases are less likely as you would expect lameness from bone or joint disease; or weakness from spinal cord disease to be constantly present.  A complete physical examination performed by your veterinarian will help to rule these out.  Special attention should be paid to the way Spike walks in between the episodes as well as focus on any areas of pain.

Cardiac or heart disease can lead to episodes of collapse that can be complete, leading to a “fainting-like spell” or partial where only some limbs are involved.  Your veterinarian will listen to Spike’s heart and determine if a heart murmur is heard, and if his heart rate and rhythm are normal.  If abnormalities are detected, a consultation with a cardiologist may be indicated.

Lastly, partial seizures need to be considered.  A classic generalized seizure (known as a gran mal seizure in people), is easy to recognize however, partial seizures can be very difficult to recognize because they can look like just about anything.    A generalized seizure is the result of a burst of neuron activity throughout the entire brain where the dog loses consciousness and has either involuntary movements or collapse.  With a partial seizure, only a portion of the brain is affected by the burst of neuronal activity and as a result, the rest of the brain remains functional.  Therefore, consciousness is often times maintained (though not always) and the dog can appear frightened or bothered by the seizure.  The seizure activity is usually confined to one portion of the body, one limb or possibly the face or head.  These seizures can increase in frequency, if not treated, and can progress to generalized seizures, so treatment with anti-seizure medications is recommended.  Possible causes of partial seizures include epilepsy, a brain tumor, encephalitis, congenital malformations, infections, trauma, and toxic and metabolic causes.  A thorough neurologic examination should be performed by your veterinarian as well as blood work and a urinalysis.  If indicated, a consultation with a neurologist and advanced diagnostics such as a brain MRI and possible spinal tap will be recommended.  I hope you are able to get to the bottom of these episodes and get Spike back to using his limbs normally again.

Kerry Bailey, DVM, Diplomate, ACVIM (Neurology)

Dr. Bailey received her DVM from Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine, completed an internship at Long Island Veterinary Specialists and a residency in Neurology at Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine. She is a Diplomate of the ACVIM in Neurology. Dr. Bailey enjoys photography, cooking and baking. She has two cats, Laverne and Shirley.