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Understanding Sudden Collapse in Dogs

dog sleeping position

Witnessing sudden collapse in dogs can be quite a frightening event and many dog owners wonder what happened to their best friend. Owners may wonder whether this is something that will occur again, and if so, what steps can be taken to prevent the episode from occurring with frequency. Just as in people, sudden collapse in dogs is something that requires investigation so to determine what the underlying cause is and what treatment will be needed to address it. If your dog suddenly collapsed, it's therefore important seeing the vet as it's unlikely to be a one-time event.


A Closer Insight

Sudden collapse in dogs is medically referred to as acute collapse. The word collapse, as it implies, means that the dog falls over, and this can be due to a loss of consciousness or a sudden loss of strength.

Affected dogs may be seen falling over when they are walking or standing and they may end up in a sitting position (hind limb collapse), sometimes with the legs splayed out, or in a lying down position (complete collapse).

For diagnostic purposes, it's important to differentiate whether the dog loses consciousness or not during the episode. Is the dog in an alert state and is aware that he has fallen? Or does the dog appear "out of it" meaning that he's unaware of the event and non responsive? Does the dog appear to "awaken" shortly afterward and act as if nothing happened? These are important questions veterinarians will ask about, when you describe your dog collapsing.

If you ever happen to witness such episodes, it's helpful if you can record the event. This way, when you see your vet and your dog is acting normally, you can provide concrete evidence of the happening. A video is worth 1,000 words and your vet can obtain a better insight on what you mean when you say "my dog has collapsed." Because acute collapse in dogs can be serious and even life threatening, it's important to see your vet sooner than later.

When it comes to acute collapse in dogs, the underlying causes can be many. Roughly though, they can be categorized into four possibilities: an issue with the dog's nervous system, an issue with the dog's circulatory system, an issue with the dog's respiratory system or an issue with the dog's musculoskeletal system. But of course, there are many more causes such as metabolic issues, the result of trauma or exposure to toxins.

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A Nervous System Disorder

When it comes to the dog's nervous system, the acute sudden collapse in dogs may be indicative of a problem with the dog's spinal cord, nerves and brain. Inter-vertebral disk disease (IVDD) may be a common cause for a dog's rear legs giving out which can cause a dog to suddenly collapse. In this condition, the intervertebral discs, basically, the jelly-like cushions located in the space between the bones of the spine, herniates and puts pressure on the spinal cord causing rear leg weakness, pain and loss of motor control.

Another potential cause is a disease known as degenerative myelopathy. This progressive disease of the spinal cord can affect older dogs causing neurological deficits of the rear legs, that, once again can cause a dog to collapse.

Another nervous system disorder that can cause collapse is myasthenia gravis. This condition interrupts the way nerves communicate with the dog's muscles.

If the dog collapses and appears non-responsive, a seizure event may be the culprit. A seizure takes place when there is abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Seizures can be well managed with medications if they tend to happen on a frequent basis.

A Circulatory System Problem

Dog Gasping for Air Before Dying

Problems with the dog's heart and/or blood vessels can also play a role in causing acute, sudden collapse in dogs. Affected dogs are prone to losing consciousnesses, a condition better known as syncope the medical term for fainting.

Young dogs may be born with congenital defects that can cause their heart to weaken and collapse. These are defects they are born with and some can be corrected surgically.

Heart worm disease, left untreated, can worsen and may lead to serious damage to the dog's heart which can result in sudden collapse. Heart worm disease is often suspected in dogs who are not placed on monthly heartworm medication.

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Dogs with heart problems often develop a cough and may become exercise intolerant. When dogs collapse, it's important keeping an eye on a dog's gums. Dogs who are bleeding internally wither due to trauma or a bleeding cancer, may develop pale gums due to poor blood circulation. These are warning signs that should be provided with prompt emergency veterinary attention.

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A Respiratory System Problem

As with any living being, breathing is essential to a dog's life. Lack of oxygen can cause a dog to collapse and even die within minutes if no quick measures are taken to sustain life. When collapse is due to a problem with the dog's airway, it's important to take immediate action and seek emergency care.

A dog may collapse due to blockage of air due to a foreign item stuck in a dog's throat, an allergy causing constricted airways or from a condition that is known as dog laryngeal paralysis.

In laryngeal paralysis, the muscles of the dog's larynx become paralyzed. Affected dogs breathe heavily, become hoarse and and can collapse. The collapsing event can turn even fatal if the life-threatening obstruction is left untreated.

A Muscular/Skeletal Problem

dog hind leg muscle atrophy, loss of muscle mass in dog legs

The dog's musculoskeletal system is formed by muscles, bones and joints. Anything that interferes with proper mobility, to the point of causing weakness, can cause a dog to collapse. Affected dogs retain consciousness, and are often trying to rise back up.

As dogs age, they may move around less and their muscles may lose tone and their bones are affected by crippling arthritis. The picture clearly shows muscle atrophy in a dog suffering from hip problems.

Hip dysplasia with its associated degeneration and spinal arthritis can therefore cause an old dog to collapse. And then again, there are possible muscle degeneration diseases which can be a culprit.

"When we see joint/arthritis based issues these do tend to be a chronic progressive issue that they cope with in silence as they age until it gets to a point where they cannot fully manage anymore. It is at that stage, we tend to become aware of an issue as we start to see weakness, misstepping, tripping, and legs giving away."~ Dr. B. veterinarian

At the Vet's Office

Your vet will ask you several questions such as describing the collapse episodes, when they happen, if your dog is responsive and what happens afterward. Following the history, your vet will examine your dog, listen to the heart and lungs, check the gums, back and spine.

Your vet may recommend running several blood tests such as a complete blood count and chemistry profile so to determine whether there are any underlying metabolic causes. X-rays of the chest, abdomen and legs may turn helpful in pinpointing the problem.

An electrocardiogram or ultrasound of the heart may be helpful to check for cardiac diseases. Some dogs may wear a holter monitor for a few days to record the electrical activity of their heart. Heart worm testing may be done on dogs who aren't provided with monthly heart worm medication and have a cough.

Diagnosis is not always straightforward with acute collapse in dogs. The route to investigating the underlying cause can be costly, challenging and at times, unrewarding. Treatment varies based on the underlying cause.

Photo Credits:

Atrophy of thigh muscle after a two-year evolution of hip dysplasiaL. Mahin - Own work Muscular atrophy of thigh of a crossed shepherd dog with two-year-old hip dysplasia. CC BY-SA 3.0

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