What is Catatonia?
The unresponsiveness seen in a catatonic state is not just your dog feeling down, but is a symptom of a more serious condition. Physical problems that can cause such a state, such as seizures and strokes, are usually preceded or followed by certain behaviors. Behavioral problems, such as fears and phobias, can also result in catatonia, which is usually triggered by a thing, event, or situation. Being aware of your dog’s behavioral changes, however subtle they may seem, can help to find the underlying cause to the disconnected state your dog is in.
Catatonia is a state of stupor or unresponsiveness seen sometimes in dogs, and can be due to various causes. If you have witnessed your dog remaining immobile, unaware or uncaring of the things and people around him and disconnected from his environment, he may be experiencing a catatonic state and should be examined by a veterinarian.
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Symptoms of Catatonia in Dogs
Signs that your dog is experiencing catatonia can include:
- Disconnection from environment
- Decreased or no response to external stimuli
- Staring into space or at an object for long periods of time
- Inattentive to noises
- Remains still when touched
- Automatic obedience
- Refrains from barking, growling or making noise
- Reduced interest in food
- Decreased interest in exercise or play
Catatonia can be the result of a number of causes. Being aware of the symptoms of these causes can help you give your veterinarian the tools to properly diagnose your dog. Signs that may indicate a specific cause can include:
- Altered behavior
- Loss of consciousness
- Spastic muscle activity
- Snapping at invisible objects
- Uncontrolled urination or defecation
- Vision impairment or temporary blindness
- Head tilt
- Abnormal eye movements
- Difficulties walking
- Loss of balance and coordination
- Loss of owner recognition
- Escape behavior
- Manic episodes
- Withdrawal from fearful situations
- Sudden anxiety
- Pale gums
Causes of Catatonia in Dogs
Some of the possible reasons that a catatonic state may occur in your dog include:
Epilepsy and Seizures
Seizures are temporary and involuntary convulsions that involve uncontrolled muscle activity. When these episodes are repeated, it is referred to as epilepsy. Seizures can be caused by an inherited disorder, brain tumors or other trauma, liver or kidney disease, or through toxic poisoning. Often, seizures occur during changes in brain activity, such as during times of excitement or falling asleep. Before the seizure, there is often altered behavior, such as whining or shaking. Seizures generally last from five seconds to five minutes, at which time your dog may lose consciousness and experience a spastic full body muscle contraction. Afterwards, your dog may appear catatonic, disoriented, and confused.
A stroke occurs when the brain’s blood supply has been disrupted or stopped, depriving the brain of oxygen and other critical nutrients. Most strokes are caused by a blood clot or as the result of disease or trauma. A stroke can result in symptoms of behavioral changes that include stupor, vision impairments, seizures, and difficulties walking.
Anemia occurs when there is not enough red blood cells or hemoglobin circulating in the blood which results in a lack of oxygen available to the cells in the body. Characteristic pale gums often are a sign that this is occurring in your dog.
Fears and Phobias
Fears can occur in any dog, and can become debilitating conditions. There are common fears, such as of new animals or situations, or fears that have evolved from trauma, such as from situations of abuse, neglect, malnourishment, or time in a shelter. Phobias are extreme responses of fearful behavior, and have progressed into routine responses that are triggered by certain stimuli, such as thunderstorms. Many of the behaviors seen in these dogs include episodes of mania or catatonia, with a decreased response to stimuli.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Dogs can be affected by a past traumatic situation that causes this panic disorder. Specific triggers that cause the dog to remember the traumatic event results in a specific behavioral pattern that is individually characteristic to the dog. Behaviors can include an intense need to escape, anxiety, mania, and a state of catatonic stupor.
Various drugs and treatments can adversely affect some dogs, and can create a lethargic state, such as aspirin or the popular anti-parasitic Ivermectin. Often, you will see other symptoms, such as vomiting and gastrointestinal distress.
Diagnosis of Catatonia in Dogs
A state of unresponsiveness can be tricky to diagnose. Be sure to tell your veterinarian about the symptoms you have noticed, the history of the catatonia, and any recent injuries or toxic exposures. Your vet will thoroughly examine your dog and may perform a neurological test.
Blood tests can reveal the presence of anemia, a clotting abnormality, or a toxic substance. Along with urine tests, they can also assess any metabolic abnormalities, or organ disorders. Imaging techniques, such as CT scans, MRIs, or X-rays, can reveal tumors, trauma, or bleeding in the brain, and can verify if a stroke has occurred. An electrocardiogram may also be performed to assess the heart rhythm. Further testing can include a heartworm test, spinal tap, retinal exams, and endocrine and thyroid hormone testing.
Abnormal behavior accompanies many of the causes of a catatonic state, and your vet may ask you several questions about your dog’s normal and recent behavior to determine if the catatonia is related to fears or phobias. Your vet may screen your dog for noise reactivity. Videotaping any odd behavior to present to your vet can help in this type of diagnosis. Once the cause of the catatonia is discovered, then an appropriate treatment plan can begin.
Treatment of Catatonia in Dogs
Treatment is aimed at treating the cause of the catatonia and can vary considerably.
Seizures are commonly treated with anticonvulsant medication which is usually given for the duration of your dog’s life. Tumors may sometimes be removed, and any organ dysfunction will be treated. Stroke treatment involves hospitalization to administer oxygen therapy and intravenous therapy in an attempt to reduce any swelling in the brain and re-establish normal blood flow. Once stabilized, physical therapy may be recommended to increase mobility. Fluid therapy, corticosteroids, antioxidants, and other therapies can also be used. Severe anemia can be treated with blood transfusions, and the underlying cause of the anemia is treated appropriately.
Behavioral issues that are at the root of the catatonia, such as phobias or PTSD, are treated by altering your dog’s response to the trigger stimuli. This includes techniques for relaxation, behavior modification, counter conditioning, desensitization, and quiet association. You should be able to recognize your dog’s triggers and have these techniques ready to use in those situations. For PTSD, it is important to keep your dog safe during times of panic. Medications can aid in relaxing your dog.
Recovery of Catatonia in Dogs
Recovery is variable and will depend on the underlying cause of the catatonia, how early treatment begins, and the state of your dog’s health. For acute situations, such as anemia caused by an infectious agent, treatment can eliminate the infection and return your dog to health. For a case of epilepsy, a lifetime of medication may be needed to keep symptoms from recurring. Stroke patients can have a full recovery if early diagnosis and treatment is available. Your veterinarian will discuss your dog’s chances of recovery based on his particular condition.
At home, you may need to administer medications, or change your dog’s diet. Monitoring your dog for symptoms may be a lifelong necessity. Victims of a stroke may have a loss of function and can need consistent care.