Written by our Neurology Resident, Dr. DiVita. You can learn more about Dr. DiVita on our neurologists page.
Why is my dog’s face droopy?
When a dog has a “drooping” face, we become concerned about a problem with the facial nerve. The facial nerve, or cranial nerve VII, exits the back of the brain and innervates the muscles of facial expression.
These muscles help with blinking, moving the ears, and “smiling.” When this nerve is not functioning, the facial muscles become weak or, in some cases, completely paralyzed. In turn, the face begins to droop or “sag.” You may also notice that your dog doesn’t blink as much.
Sometimes dogs can drool excessively from one side of the mouth. Dogs have both a right and left facial nerve that supplies each side of the face. One side or both sides may be affected.
What are the causes for facial nerve paralysis in dogs?
There are many possible causes for facial nerve paralysis in dogs. One of the most common causes is called “idiopathic facial nerve paralysis”. In this disorder, there is no active underlying cause for the paralysis. This condition is similar to Bell’s Palsy in people. It is most commonly unilateral (only affecting one side of the face), but can present with bilateral involvement (both sides).
However, there are other, more serious causes for facial nerve paralysis. Some other possible causes for facial nerve paralysis include an auto-immune inflammatory process (meningitis/encephalitis), certain types of cancers such as lymphoma, or strokes in the brain.
Even problems outside of the brain, such as a deep ear infection or low thyroid level, can cause facial nerve paralysis.
What tests can be done to help my dog with a facial droop?
General blood work should be performed as a screening test for overall health. We may also recommend performing a thyroid hormone level to rule this out as a cause for your French Bulldog’s signs.
If this testing is normal, an MRI is the next recommended step. An MRI allows us to look at the brain and the middle ear to evaluate for a possible underlying cause for facial nerve paralysis. In some cases, an MRI is paired with a spinal tap, which helps us to rule out inflammatory conditions such as meningitis.
If all of this testing is normal, your dog would be diagnosed with idiopathic facial nerve paralysis. The difficulty in diagnosing idiopathic facial nerve paralysis is that we must rule out all other conditions before being able to come to this diagnosis.
How do you treat facial nerve paralysis in dogs?
Treatment differs depending on the underlying cause. For example, a dog with an ear infection will require antibiotics. A dog with meningitis will require immunosuppressive medications typically. In idiopathic facial nerve paralysis, the treatment is supportive.
The most important thing to remember is that dogs with a drooping face likely cannot blink their eye on the affected side(s)! Since the eyes will not be able to be moistened, we must provide extra lubrication to the eyes to avoid the development of an ulcer.
You may also notice a dry, firm crusting of nostril on the affected side as the facial nerve provides some function to the glands in the nasal passages. In this case, a clean towel and warm water can be used to clean out the nasal debris.
Can dogs recover from facial paralysis?
The prognosis is also largely dependent on the underlying cause. For dogs with idiopathic facial nerve paralysis, there is a 30-50% chance that your dog will recover the ability to use these muscles. If use of the facial muscles does not return, lubrication of the eye needs to be continued.
Dogs that do not recover function can still live a great quality of life, and the long-term implications are cosmetic. Our pets typically acclimate well, and we think it gives them character!
As you can see, there are many causes of facial nerve paralysis or facial droop in dogs. Many of them are fixable, but some may get worse without early diagnosis and treatment. This is why you should call a neurologist at Southeast Veterinary Neurology if your pet is showing signs of facial nerve paralysis (facial droop).