Neurological Disorders in Dogs
What Are Neurological Disorders in Dogs?
Your dog’s nervous system is the “control center” that controls everything from automatic functions like breathing and metabolic regulation to higher-order thinking that gives your dog their unique personality.
Problems in the nervous system can range from physical disorders to those that affect your dog’s cognition and ability to understand and follow commands.
Read on to understand more about your dog’s nervous system and how to recognize when something is wrong.
Anatomy of a Dog’s Nervous System
The nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. These organs and systems work together to regulate your dog’s overall physical, mental, and emotional health.
The brain is the main cognitive organ in the body. It’s divided into three main regions:
Brain stem–Controls basic life-sustaining functions, like breathing or digesting food, without having to think about it
Cerebrum—Higher thinking occurs here, like learning how to sit on command or house-training
Cerebellum—Controls all movement and motor activity, like walking or jumping
The spinal cord connects to the base of the brain, then travels down the spinal column along the back to the tail. The spinal cord consists of bundles of nerve fibers that carry impulses to and from the brain. This includes sensory input from the rest of the body (e.g., Is it hot or cold? Am I being petted?) and commands from the brain that control movement and other physical functions.
How Does a Dog’s Nervous System Work?
The nervous system includes all the nerves that shoot off from the spinal cord and travel to every part of the dog’s body. Some nerves carry messages from the body to the spinal cord, so they can be transmitted to the brain and acted on. Other nerves carry messages from the brain with commands for the body, like barking at a worrisome neighbor or moving a paw off hot asphalt.
A dog’s nervous system can be separated into two distinct but related systems:
Central nervous system (CNS)—This includes the brain and spinal cord and all the nerves within them. These nerves can be further divided into sympathetic and parasympathetic functions. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for all systems related to “fight or flight,” including the heart, blood vessels, lungs, and muscles. When a dog sees an animal they want to chase, their sympathetic nervous system may activate.
Peripheral nervous system (PNS)—The PNS includes all the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. It’s often thought of as “rest and digest.” These nerves activate when an animal is relaxed, like during digestion.
Symptoms of Neurological Disorders in Dogs
Disorders in the nervous system can cause subtle symptoms, like muscle twitches or mild pain, or severe symptoms, like seizures or paralysis. Some of the many signs that might indicate a neurological disorder in dogs include:
Lack of coordination (ataxia)
Knuckling over of the feet
Unusual, rapid eye movements (nystagmus)
Head tilt or circling
Inappropriate mental activity
Muscle tremors, twitching, or trembling
Weakness in the back end
Causes of Neurological Disorders in Dogs
Neurological conditions are commonly caused by genetic disorders, and some breeds are more prone to them. They can also be caused by cancer, trauma, and toxins.
Brain tumors may be the root cause of a dog’s seizures or behavior changes. Spinal tumors can look like intervertebral disc disease, with back pain and weakness in the hind end or difficulty walking. Ingesting toxins, like chocolate and antifreeze, can lead to seizures, stumbling, and lack of coordination. Being hit by a car or other trauma can lead to brain and spinal issues.
Common Neurological Disorders in Dogs
The following are some of the most common neurologic disorders in dogs:
Intervertebral Disc Disease
Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) occurs when the disc material inside a dog’s spine starts bulging or ruptures. This compresses the spinal cord beneath the disc, disrupting the nerves that connect to the spinal cord.
While IVDD can occur in any breed, it is most common in dogs with long backs that structurally have less stability in their spine, such as Dachshunds, Basset Hounds, Cocker Spaniels, French Bulldogs, and Beagles.
Dogs affected with IVDD may seem like they’re in pain, not wanting to jump on furniture or use the stairs. They may also be more severely affected, knuckling over and walking on the tops of their paws, and they can even lose the ability to walk and use their back end.
Some cases of IVDD can be managed medically with anti-inflammatories and strict rest, but other cases may require surgery to allow a dog to walk again and urinate on their own. If the nerves that control urination and defecation branch from the spinal cord near the area of the damaged disc, the dog may not be able to urinate on their own.
A seizure is a surge of uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain. It is often accompanied by jerking physical movements, or convulsions. When dogs have a seizure, they are mentally unaware and often lose control of their bladder or bowels. Seizures can be caused by certain toxins, an underlying illness like liver disease, a brain tumor, trauma, or genetics.
The most commonly diagnosed cause of seizures is an inherited condition called idiopathic epilepsy. Epilepsy is usually treated with long-term medications like levetiracetam, phenobarbital, or potassium bromide.
Once a pet goes on seizure medications, they’re usually on them for life. Keeping a journal of any seizure episodes is recommended to identify patterns that may come before seizures.
If your dog has a seizure that lasts longer than 5 minutes, or cluster seizures (more than three in 24 hours), they should be seen immediately by an emergency veterinarian because they’re at risk for brain damage and death.
Vestibular disease is a sudden loss of balance and coordination. Dogs with this disease are often unable to walk, may circle in one direction, have a head tilt, or experience uncontrolled jerking eye movements called nystagmus. Many times they will not eat, and they may vomit due to the nausea that accompanies the spinning, unbalanced sensation.
This disease is more common in senior dogs and may be caused by a middle or inner ear infection. More often than not, there is no underlying cause that can be found. Fortunately, vestibular disease often resolves with time. Usually, the worst symptoms lessen after the first two or three days and are gone within a few weeks.
Vestibular disease is usually managed with medications to help combat nausea, like Cerenia®, and supportive care to help affected dogs eat, drink, and go to the bathroom outside.
Cognitive dysfunction, commonly referred to as dementia, is an age-related change in a dog’s brain that occurs in some senior dogs.
Dogs with cognitive dysfunction will often get lost in their own home. Sometimes they get stuck in corners or will bark at things that are not there. Often they will seem disoriented and confused in the evening before bed.
Cognitive dysfunction cannot be cured but is usually managed or slowed down with a combination of medication, supplements, and diet therapy. Some dogs are prescribed selegiline or put on diets like Hills b/d or Purina Neurocare. Affected dogs may benefit from light physical activity and brain-engaging interactions, like walks or treat puzzles.
Wobbler syndrome, or cervical spondylomyelopathy, is a disease of the neck that causes an uncoordinated gait, dragging of the feet, and extreme neck pain. It can affect any breed of dog, but it’s most common in Doberman Pinschers and other large-breed dogs like Great Danes, Weimaraners, and Rottweilers.
It’s the result of compression on the spinal cord in the neck. The condition may be managed surgically or medically. Medical treatment includes rest and anti-inflammatory pain medications like carprofen or medications for nerve pain like gabapentin.
Degenerative myelopathy, or DM, is a disease of the spinal cord that leads to weakness in the back end and eventual paralysis. It is most common in older German Shepherds and often looks like arthritis or hip dysplasia. Affected dogs may be weaker in the back end, drag their feet when walking, and have trouble getting up from lying down.
It is believed to be caused by a genetic mutation, similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in humans. While there is no treatment for this condition, keeping affected pets active and at a healthy weight can slow the progression of the disease. Many pets benefit from pain medications because they often have underlying arthritis as well.
Meningitis, Encephalitis, and Encephalomyelitis
When inflammation occurs in the brain, spinal cord, or membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord, it’s called encephalitis, encephalomyelitis, or meningitis, respectively.
Affected dogs may have symptoms like a fever, head tilt or head pressing, circling, lack of balance and difficulty walking, muscle tremors, blindness, and seizures. This condition may be a result of a bacteria, virus, fungi, parasite, or an autoimmune condition.
These conditions are usually diagnosed by a veterinary neurologist after an MRI and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis. They are treated with medications to kill the infectious agent, if one is present, and to reduce inflammation around the brain, spinal cord, and membranes.
How Veterinarians Diagnose Neurological Issues in Dogs
If your dog is showing signs of a neurological disorder, the first thing your veterinarian will want to do is collect a thorough history. Let them know about potential exposure to toxins, including behavior like getting into trash or unfamiliar areas, or any possible trauma.
If your dog is having seizures, the vet may ask these questions:
How long did the seizure episode(s) last?
When was the first seizure episode?
How many seizures have they had?
Exactly what did your dog do during the episode? Did they have convulsions, lose consciousness, or lose control of their bladder?
It can be very helpful to take a video of your dog’s unusual behavior to show the vet.
After a physical examination, your veterinarian will likely want to run some tests, including blood work and X-rays. Spinal fluid taps may be recommended. During this procedure, a sample of cerebrospinal fluid is collected to look for signs of infection or cancer.
The vet may recommend that your dog see a veterinary neurologist. In addition to having a wealth of knowledge about neurologic disease, these specialists have access to advanced imaging like CT scans and MRIs, which are very helpful when trying to see structures like the spinal cord, discs, or the brain.
Treatment for Neurological Disorders in Dogs
Treatment will depend on the nature of the neurologic disorder and may include lifestyle modifications, medications, or surgery.
Medication is the most common type of treatment for most neurological disorders in dogs. Seizure disorders are treated with anti-epileptic drugs that must be given for the remainder of a dog’s life. Monitoring is usually necessary to make dose changes required over time, so regular bloodwork and exams may be recommended.
Many dogs with spinal cord compression will benefit from anti-inflammatory medications such as steroids. Steroids have some side effects, including increased thirst, increased urination, increased appetite, and panting.
If your dog is put on steroids, be sure to let them out more frequently to urinate so they’re not having accidents in the house. Watch their diet and control their food portions, as increased appetite can lead to overeating and weight gain, which can worsen the underlying neurologic disease and shorten their lifespan.
Supplements and Prescription Diets
There are some supplements and nutritional therapies on the market that can be helpful for various neurological disorders. SAMe, which helps reduce inflammation, may benefit some pets. Commercial diets like Purina Neurocare and Hills b/d have been shown to slow progression of cognitive dysfunction and reduce frequency of seizure episodes.
Surgeries are done by a neurology specialist and require advanced diagnostics, like CT or MRI, prior to surgery. Surgery on the back, neck, or brain can be expensive, but it may be your pet’s best option. Make sure you understand all the costs involved and be sure to follow the post-operative instructions. Oftentimes, follow-up visits can be done with your pet’s regular veterinarian.
Recovery and Management of Neurological Disorders in Dogs
Some neurological disorders are very common and can be managed to preserve your dog’s quality of life. Other conditions may be unusual and require a diagnostic journey and a neurology specialist to get answers.
If your pet is prescribed medication, it’s important to follow the instructions as labeled. If you notice any unexpected or concerning side effects, call your veterinarian right away. Some medications, like phenobarbital, may lead to dramatic initial side effects, like wobbling and stumbling, that subside over time. Your veterinarian is the best person to explain medication side effects and adjustments.
Neurological Disorders in Dogs FAQs
Can you prevent neurological disorders in dogs?
Many neurological disorders are inherited, making prevention difficult. If you have a Dachshund or another breed prone to IVDD, you can help by changing your environment and working with your dog to reduce risky behaviors.
Teach your dog to use steps or a ramp to get up on the bed or couch, rather than leaping up and down. Keep your pet at an ideal body condition, as obesity has been linked to an increased risk of morbidity with many neurological disorders. And make sure your pet has no access to toxins—keep dangerous pesticides, human food, and prescription medications safely stored away.
Featured Image: iStock.com/SeventyFour
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