Coma in Dogs

Dr. Rania Gollakner
Published: December 2, 2022
Coma in Dogs

What Is a Coma in Dogs?

Coma is a state of unconsciousness that indicates a problem with the brain and spinal cord. In this state, the dog cannot be roused. Signs of coma can depend on the location and severity of the injury. Coma is a veterinary emergency that requires quick action, as the dog’s condition and prognosis can change rapidly.

How Do I Know if My Dog Is in a Coma?

Dogs in a complete state of coma usually have the following signs:

  • Unresponsive to all stimulation, including pain

  • Lying down with limp muscles

  • Automatic reflexes are weak or absent

  • Both pupils are dilated and do not respond to light by getting smaller

  • The eyes are fixed and will not move

  • Changes in breathing pattern (faster, slower, or periods of not breathing)

Dogs in a partial state of coma can still appear unconscious and will likely have some but not all of these signs. Depending on the cause of the coma, other signs, such as seizures, may occur.

What To Do If Your Dog Is in a Coma

If your dog is in a coma, contact your veterinarian immediately as this is a medical emergency. In addition to taking your dog to the clinic as quickly as possible, also consider the following actions depending on the injury or situation:

  • Verify that the airway is not blocked (check the nose, mouth, and throat)

  • Check for breathing and heartbeat/pulse

  • If bleeding/hemorrhaging, stop the bleeding if possible

  • Perform CPR

What Causes a Dog Coma?

There are many causes of coma in dogs. Each of the following can cause coma because they lead to an increased pressure within the skull, fluid accumulation in and around the brain, and/or brain tissue that is pushed outside of the skull (brain herniation):

  • Infection or traumatic injury that causes inflammation

  • Brain tumors or other masses

  • Systemic problems such as high blood pressure, or vascular events, such as a stroke,  can lead to bleeding or edema in and around the brain or decreased blood flow to brain tissue

  • Metabolic disturbances that can damage brain tissue, such as uncontrolled diabetes, liver or kidney disease, or Cushing’s or Addison’s disease

  • Spinal fluid leaks into the brain cavities (hydrocephalus)

  • Exposure to substances toxic to the brain

  • Lack of oxygen; frequent or severe seizures

How Veterinarians Treat a Dog Coma

Treating a coma depends largely on the cause of the coma. First and foremost, the veterinarian will stabilize the patient by ensuring the airways are open, the patient is breathing, and the circulation of blood is adequate and appropriate. Diagnostic tests such as blood work and CT/MRI, as well as monitoring temperature, blood pressure, pulses, and breathing rate, will help guide the treatment.

If your dog is hospitalized, administration of intravenous fluids, antiseizure medications, diuretics, and sometimes corticosteroids is often done to treat coma and prevent further damage to the brain. Elevating the head can help manage increased pressures in the brain. Then, once the cause of coma is identified, more specific treatments will be administered. For example, if the coma is caused by a bacterial infection in the brain, an antibiotic will be given to treat the infection.

Recovery and Management of Coma in Dogs

Recovery from a coma requires patience and time. Depending on the cause and severity of the coma, the long-term effects and management will vary. While a patient can recover fully after a coma, there can also be serious consequences such as seizures or permanent neurological deficits that will require long-term management and nursing care.

Prognosis of Coma in Dogs

Prognosis of coma depends on several factors, including the cause of the coma, what other problems are occurring at the same time, patient factors (such as age), the location of the brain injury, how quickly treatment can be administered, and the patient’s response to treatment. Assessment of neurologic signs and how they progress over time can be helpful in establishing a prognosis.

Coma in Dogs FAQs

Can a dog recover from a coma? 

Yes, but recovery will depend on several factors, such as the cause of the coma and the severity of the injury. Some dogs may recover but still have long-term effects from the injury.

How long can a coma last? 

A coma can last from a few days to a few weeks, and less often, it can last even longer. During this time, frequent assessment of the neurologic system will help evaluate prognosis and recovery time.

Featured Image: iStock.com/Capuski


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