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Neurological Disorders in Dogs

12 Common Neurological Disorders in Dogs

12 common neurological disorders in dogs are seizures, degenerative disc disease, polyneuropathy, vestibular disease, cerebellum disorders, spinal disease, encephalitis, blindness, tremors, Parkinson’s disease, canine cognitive dysfunction, and cancer. 

Neurological disorders in dogs affect the brain, spinal cord, or nerves. German Shepherds are predisposed to generative myelopathy. Degenerative disc disease is prevalent among Basset Hounds and Dachshunds. Wobbler syndrome is widespread in Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, and Weimaraners

Neurological disorders in dogs are caused by genetics, congenital abnormalities, infections, autoimmune diseases, injuries, toxins, metabolic problems, nutritional deficiencies, nerve tissue degeneration, cancer, and vascular problems. 

Tremors, seizures, loss of coordination, disorientation, weakness or paralysis, circling or pacing, head tilting, neck pain or stiffness, vision and hearing problems, nystagmus, behavioral issues, and incontinence are neurological symptoms in dogs. 

The treatment for neurological disorders in dogs is medical or surgical based on the underlying cause. Nutritional support, physical therapy, and rehabilitation support recovery from neurological disorders. The prognosis for neurological problems in dogs varies from good to poor. 

Knowing what are the most common neurological disorders in dogs is critical for preventing them or minimizing the risk of development. 

1. Seizures

Seizures in dogs are sudden and uncontrolled outbursts of electrical activity in the brain. The outbursts trigger involuntary muscle contractions, which are generalized or localized. 

Brain tumors or trauma, liver disease, kidney failure, low blood sugar levels, and some toxins, such as lead and antifreeze, are common triggers, but the exact cause of canine seizures is unknown. 

Signs preceding the seizing episode are restlessness, vacant staring, drooling, lip licking, and unusual vocalization. Dogs in seizure fall over, shake, stiffen, and paddle with their legs. Signs after a seizure are urinating or defecating without control, disorientation, and, in some cases, temporary blindness. 

Diagnosing the seizure’s underlying cause entails physical examination, blood and urine tests, electroencephalogram (EEG), cerebrospinal fluid sampling, brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computed tomography (CT) scans.

Dog seizures are treated by managing the underlying cause and using antiepileptics, such as potassium bromide, zonisamide, levetiracetam, or phenobarbitol. 

Seizure episodes are not fully preventable. The best way to minimize the risk of dog seizures is to find and avoid the trigger. 

2. Degenerative disc disease

Degenerative disc disease in dogs is when the cushioning discs between the spinal column’s bones bulge or burst, pressuring the spinal cord. The condition is called intervertebral disc disease or IVDD. 

The pressure of the slipped disc causes pain, nerve damage, or, in severe cases, paralysis. The disease is caused by prolonged wear and tear or, in chondrodysplastic breeds, like Basset Hounds, Corgis, and Dachshunds, a sudden disc rupture. 

Signs of degenerative disc disease are limping, leg dragging, stumbling, unsteady gait, difficulty posturing to urinate or defecate, hunched back or neck, anxiety, reduced activity, and appetite changes. 

The diagnosis is based on physical examination, neurological assessment, and spinal imaging, including radiography (X-rays), MRI, or CT scans. 

The treatment for degenerative disc disease is medical or surgical. Physical therapy after the treatment is highly advisable to promote recovery. 

Maintain a healthy body weight, use harnesses instead of collars, and prevent jumping off of high places to reduce the risk of developing degenerative disc disease. 

3. Polyneuropathy

Polyneuropathy in dogs is a neurological disorder affecting multiple peripheral nerves. Peripheral nerve problems affect the dog’s consciousness, movements, and reflexes. 

The condition is inherited or caused by immune disorders, metabolic issues (hypothyroidism, pancreatic tumor), infectious agents (the parasite Neospora caninum), cancer medications, and toxins (pesticides). 

Signs of polyneuropathy in dogs include weakness, slow reflexes, lack of muscle tone, tremors, loss of consciousness, paralysis, dizziness, and dry nose, eyes, or mouth. 

Diagnosing polyneuropathy in dogs requires a complete blood count, biochemistry profile, urinalysis, spinal taps, and chest and abdominal X-rays. Electrophysiology is a specific test that measures the electrical flow in cells and tissues. 

There is no treatment for canine polyneuropathy. Symptomatic care, such as physical therapy to restore muscle strength, manages the effects of polyneuropathy. 

Managing underlying triggers and maintaining dog health reduces the risk of polyneuropathy. 

4. Vestibular disease

Vestibular disease in dogs affects the vestibular system, which is located in the middle and inner ear. Vestibular disease affects the dog’s balance and coordination. 

Vestibular disease is called old dog vestibular syndrome because it is prevalent in seniors. Ear infections and traumas culminating in eardrum rupture are the leading causes of vestibular disease. 

Vestibular disease manifests with head tilting, walking in circles, losing coordination, rapid eye movement (nystagmus), stumbling, staggering, and Horner’s syndrome (droopy upper eyelid).

A vet diagnoses vestibular disease using a complete blood count, biochemistry panels, urinalysis, ear cytology, and advanced imaging, such as X-rays and CT scans. 

Treating the underlying cause while managing the symptoms with anti-nausea medication, intravenous fluids, and antibiotics is the treatment of choice for dogs with vestibular disease.    

Regular ear care and avoidance of Q-tips when cleaning the dog’s ears at home are excellent preventative measures for vestibular disease.

5. Cerebellum disorders

Cerebellum disorders are problems of the cerebellum, known as the little brain. The primary cerebellum disorders are cerebellar abiotrophy (degeneration) and hypoplasia, which affect the dog’s coordination and balance. 

Cerebellar abiotrophy is a breed-specific condition occurring in different breeds at various life cycle phases. Neonatal cerebellar abiotrophy is prevalent in Coton de Tulears, Beagles, and Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Juvenile cerebellar abiotrophy is common in English Bulldogs, Airedale Terriers, Border Collies, and Australian Kelpies. Adult cerebellar abiotrophy is prevalent in Pit Bulls, Staffordshire Terriers, and Scottish Terriers. Cerebellar hypoplasia is hereditary in Airedale Terriers, Boston Terriers, Bull Terriers, and Chow Chows. 

Signs of cerebellar degeneration and hypoplasia include abnormal gait, head tilt, broad-based stance, swaying, and lack of coordination when walking (ataxia). 

Veterinary medicine does not offer specific treatments for dogs with cerebellum disorders. Dogs learn to compensate for the deficits and benefit from symptomatic care. 

6. Spinal disease (Degenerative Myelopathy)

Degenerative myelopathy (DM) is a progressive neurological disease of the dog’s spinal cord. The condition affects muscle tone and coordination, starting at the hind and progressing to the front limbs. 

DM is hereditary and seen in specific breeds, such as German Shepherds, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Boxers, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. 

Clinical signs of degenerative myelopathy in dogs are difficulty rising, hind leg weakness, loss of muscle tone and mass, incoordination, and scuffed toenails on the back limbs. 

DM diagnosis eliminates other neurological conditions via neurological exams, blood work, spinal fluid analysis, and imaging techniques, such as X-rays, MRI, or CT scans.  

Degenerative myelopathy is not treatable. Physical therapy helps maintain muscle strength and delays the progression of spinal problems in dogs

Screening for the SOD1 gene responsible for DM and carefully selecting mating partners is vital for preventing degenerative myelopathy in dogs.  

7. Encephalitis

Encephalitis in dogs is inflammation of the brain. Brain inflammation is not a disease alone but a common signalment of other neurological conditions. The effects of encephalitis depend on the brain area affected. 

Canine encephalitis is infectious or non-infectious. Infectious encephalitis is caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Non-infectious encephalitis has an autoimmune component. 

Signs and symptoms of encephalitis in dogs include fever, behavioral changes, seizures, loss of balance, ataxia, head tilts, facial paralysis, reduced responsiveness, stumbling, blindness, pain, tremors, and circling. 

Blood work, neurological examination, cerebrospinal fluid sampling, MRI and CT scans, and brain tissue analysis are performed to determine the underlying cause of encephalitis. 

The treatment for encephalitis is individually tailored and entails managing the underlying cause and controlling the symptoms. 

Early diagnosis and treatment of the encephalitis causes in dogs helps reduce the risk of brain inflammation. 

8. Blindness

Neurologic blindness is loss of vision associated with brain disease or injury. The blindness affects the dog temporarily or permanently, depending on the underlying cause. 

The most common cause of neurological blindness is inflammation of the optic nerve known as optic neuritis. The inflammation is triggered by infections, trauma, toxins, vitamin A deficiency, and cancer. 

Clinical signs of neurological blindness include sudden loss of vision, altered depth perception, and pain or tenderness in the eye region. 

A veterinary ophthalmologist diagnoses blindness after carefully assessing pupil reflexes and performing additional tests such as electroretinogram (ERG), MRI, and CT scans. 

The treatment for optic neuritis is based on anti-inflammatory medications to reduce swelling and inflammation. 

Regular veterinary exams and proper eye care help minimize the risk of optic neuritis; however, neurologic dog blindness is not fully preventable. 

9. Tremor

Tremors are involuntary muscle movements that resemble shivering, trembling, or shaking. Tremors are not a disease but a sign of underlying neurological problems, typically shaker syndrome. 

The cause of shaker syndrome in dogs is unknown. Shaker syndrome is called “little white shaker syndrome” because it is prevalent in small, white-coated breeds such as Maltese, Poodles, and West Highland White Terriers. 

The condition manifests with rhythmic, repetitive, and involuntary muscle movements that range in severity from mild to incapacitating and affect the dog’s head, body, or both. 

Shaker syndrome diagnosis is made by ruling out other potential causes. Cerebrospinal fluid analysis and MRIs are used for diagnosis. 

The treatment for shaker syndrome is steroids, particularly prednisone. The medication is used long-term, but the dose is gradually reduced to a minimum. 

The prognosis for dogs with tremors due to shaker syndrome is good. Prevention measures are unknown because minimal information exists about the condition's cause. 

10. Parkinson's disease

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological condition associated with the loss of nerve cells that secrete the neurotransmitter dopamine. The condition affects the dog’s muscle tone, walking, and balance. 

The exact cause of Parkinson’s disease in dogs is unknown. The condition is believed to be inherited because it is prevalent among young puppies. 

Signs of Parkinson’s disease include gradually worsening tremors in one or more legs, stiff and inflexible muscles, fidgeting or restlessness, and unusually slow movement. 

The disease is diagnosed by ruling out other neurological conditions via physical exam, blood and urine tests, and advanced imaging techniques, such as MRI and CT scans. 

Parkinson’s disease is not curable. Treatment aims to improve the dog’s quality of life via pain control and physical therapy. 

Preventing Parkinson’s disease in dogs is not possible due to the complexity of the condition and obscure knowledge of its causes. 

11. Cognitive or behavioral changes

Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) is an age-related change similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. The condition affects the dog’s memory, cognition, and senses. 

Cognitive dysfunction starts when the brain cells die due to older age. Epileptic dogs and dogs with sedentary lifestyles are at a higher-than-average risk of developing CCD. 

Clinical signs and symptoms of canine cognitive dysfunction include disorientation, such as getting lost, not recognizing familiar people, and trouble navigating the environment; behavioral changes, such as mood swings, disinterest in play, and lack of self-grooming; impaired memory, such as trouble learning, forgetting old commands, and house soiling; and sleep changes, such as night walking and pacing.

CCD is diagnosed through an elimination process and ruling out other conditions. Blood work, biochemistry profiles, X-rays, and advanced imaging options like MRI and CT scans help eliminate diseases with similar effects. 

The treatment for canine cognitive dysfunction is supportive and aims to maintain a good quality of life. Prescription diets for neurological health and supplements like omega fatty acids and CBD oil are beneficial. 

Canine cognitive dysfunction is not preventable. CCD onset and symptom severity are delayed by ongoing mental stimulation.  

12. Cancer

Cancer of the brain is an umbrella term encompassing various growths in the dog’s brain. Primary tumors develop from the nerve tissue, and secondary tumors end up in the brain from distant organs in the body. 

Brain cancer affects the dog’s behavior and coordination. The cause of cancer is unknown, but it is believed to be a consequence of complex genetic, environmental, traumatic, chemical, viral, and immune-related factors. 

Signs of brain cancer in dogs include abnormal behaviors, altered mental acuity, vision issues, circling, head tilting, wobbly gait, and neck hypersensitivity. 

Cancer diagnosis uses computed tomography (CT) and MRI to visualize the brain to check for tumors. A chest X-ray is ordered to see if the cancer has spread to the lungs. 

The treatment for brain cancer in dogs entails medications, surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or any combination of these options. 

Brain cancer in dogs is not preventable. A healthy diet, optimal exercise and mental stimulation, and regular vet exams help reduce the dog cancer risk in some cases. 

What are Neurological Disorders in Dogs?

Neurological disorders in dogs are problems affecting the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. 

The brain has three parts, including the brain stem, cerebrum, and cerebellum. The brain stem controls basic functions such as respiration and digestion. The cerebrum processes higher thinking, and the cerebellum manages movement and motor activity. 

The spinal cord, made of bundles of nerve fibers, starts at the base of the brain and travels to the tail through the spinal column. Nerves branch out from the dog’s brain and spinal cord. 

Conditions affecting the brain, the spinal cord, or the nerves are classified as neurologic disorders and affect the dog’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.  

What causes neurological disorders in dogs?

The causes of neurological disorders in dogs are listed below. 

  • Genetics: Many neurological disorders in dogs are breed-specific. Degenerative disc disease is standard for Dachshunds, and degenerative myelopathy for German Shepherds, for example. 
  • Congenital Abnormalities: Neurological disorders such as cerebellar hypoplasia are hereditary and present at birth or during early development. 
  • Infections: Bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitic infections cause encephalitis, meningitis, and vestibular disease in some cases. 
  • Autoimmune Disorders: The dog’s immune system mistakenly attacks its nervous tissues, causing inflammation and damage that culminate in neurological disorders.  
  • Traumatic Injuries: Severe traumatic head and spinal cord injuries cause swelling, compression, and temporary or permanent nerve damage. 
  • Toxins: Certain toxins, such as heavy metals like lead and mercury, pesticides, and human medications, cause intoxication and neurological problems in dogs. 
  • Metabolic Issues: Metabolic disturbances, such as low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and liver dysfunction (hepatic encephalopathy), cause neurological symptoms. 
  • Nutritional Deficiencies: Inadequate intake of certain vital nutrients, such as vitamin B1 (thiamine), leads to neurological disorders in dogs. 
  • Degenerative Conditions: Age-related degeneration of the nervous tissues culminates in a canine version of dementia, known as canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD). 
  • Nervous Tissue Cancer: Tumors in the brain and spinal cord pressure the local tissues, causing neurological symptoms. 
  • Vascular Problems: Disruption of blood flow to the brain is, in some cases, the answer to the “What causes sudden neurological issues in a dog?” question. 

What are the symptoms of neurological disorders in dogs?

The symptoms of neurological disorders in dogs are listed below. 

  • Tremors or Shaking: Tremors or shaking are involuntary muscle movements that vary in location and severity, from mild to disruptive. 
  • Seizures: Seizures are episodes of uncontrolled twitching and loss of consciousness, a telltale sign of neurological disorders in dogs. 
  • Loss of Coordination: Loss of coordination or ataxia is an unsteady gait accompanied by stumbling or wobbling, which indicates problems with the cerebellum and neurological problems. 
  • Disorientation: General confusion, inability to recognize familiar people, getting lost in the house, and forgetting learned commands are seen in dogs with neurological issues. 
  • Weakness or Paralysis: Weakness is difficulty moving, and paralysis is the inability to move one or more limbs. Hind leg weakness and paralysis are more common symptoms of neurological disorders in dogs. 
  • Circling or Pacing: Walking in circles and pacing restlessly are repetitive behaviors and a common clinical manifestation of neurological conditions. 
  • Head Tilting: Head tilt is keeping one side of the head down and is a common symptom in dogs with vestibular disease and brain tumors. 
  • Neck Pain or Stiffness: Increased neck tenderness and reluctance to move the neck suggest Wobbler syndrome and meningitis. 
  • Vision or Hearing Loss: Sudden or progressive decline in the dog’s vision and hearing occurs in some cases of neurological problems. 
  • Rapid Eye Movements: Abnormal eye movements, called nystagmus, are uncontrolled eye motions and a hallmark sign of neurological canine disorders. 
  • Behavioral Changes: Sudden changes in behavior, such as aggression, mood swings, irritability, and anxiety, are frequent neurological symptoms in dogs. 
  • Incontinence: Certain neurological diseases in dogs cause loss of bladder (urinary incontinence) and bowel (fecal incontinence) control. 

What is the long-term outlook for dogs with neurological disorders?

The long-term outlook for dogs with neurological disorders ranges from good to poor, depending on the underlying cause. 

The prognosis is better for neurological conditions caused by inflammation or infection. Neurological issues triggered by severe trauma and degenerative diseases have poorer prognoses. 

Neurological disorders in dogs, in most cases, are not immediately life-threatening but severely harm the dog’s quality of life. 

How are neurological disorders in dogs diagnosed?

Neurological disorders in dogs are diagnosed with physical evaluation, neurological exams, basic diagnostic analysis, imaging techniques, and specific neurological tests. 

The physical evaluation assesses the dog’s holistic state, while the neurological exam focuses on the nervous system to narrow down the potential diagnoses. 

Basic diagnostic procedures include blood tests, like complete blood counts, biochemistry panels, and urinalysis.  

Imaging techniques entail X-rays, CT scans, and MRI to visualize the brain, spinal cord, and tissues or organs. 

Specific neurological tests include cerebrospinal fluid analysis (CSF), electromyography (EMG), and genetic screening. 

Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis takes a cerebrospinal fluid sample and analyzes it under a microscope. Electromyography (EMG) measures the electrical activity in the muscles, helping detect peripheral nerve disorders. Genetic screening identifies gene mutations responsible for carrying neurological conditions. 

What treatments are available for neurological disorders in dogs?

Medical and surgical treatments are available for neurological disorders in dogs. The treatment strategy depends on the neurological problem and is individually tailored. 

Medications are more common than surgery. Dogs with seizures require a lifelong use of antiepileptic drugs, for example. Dogs with disc disease benefit from anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids. 

Nervous system surgery is complex, expensive, risky, and must be done by a certified neurologist. Surgical treatment is typically combined with medications. 

Physical therapy and rehabilitation are integral in treating neurological disorders in dogs. 

How can owners support dogs with neurological disorders?

Owners can support dogs with neurological disorders by following the vet’s recommendations, ensuring a safe and comfortable environment, assisting with mobility, providing proper nutrition, and investing in physical therapy and rehabilitation. 

Adhere to the veterinarian’s guidelines, including drug administration, attendance of follow-up exams, and implementation of lifestyle and dietary changes. 

Ensure the dog’s living environment is safe and comfortable. Remove hazardous objects, cover slippery surfaces, and provide ramps or other aids that help the dog navigate more easily.

Support mobility with harnesses, slings, or carts. Walking, standing, and moving are hard for dogs with neurological problems. 

Give balanced, high-quality food to dogs with neurological disorders. Pet food brands offer prescription diets explicitly made for neurological issues. Omegas, antioxidants, and B-complex vitamins benefit dogs with neurological conditions. 

Are certain dog breeds more prone to neurological disorders?

Yes, certain dog breeds are more prone to neurological disorders. Degenerative disc disease is prevalent among Basset Hounds and Dachshunds, for example. Generative myelopathy is standard for German Shepherds. Wobbler syndrome is widespread in Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, and Weimaraners. 

Is Paralysis in Dogs Caused by Neurological Disorder?

Yes, paralysis in dogs is caused by neurological disorders. The nervous system sends messages from the brain to the muscles, instructing them what to do. Nervous disorders that impair the communication between the nervous system and the dog’s muscles result in paralysis. 

Neurological disorders cause partial paralysis, called paresis, while others cause complete dog paralysis, which affects the front limbs, the hind limbs, or all four limbs (tetraplegia). 

What are the latest advancements in treating canine neurological disorders?

The latest advancements in treating canine neurological disorders include chemotherapy and cellular therapy.

In recent years, many advances have been made in pharmacological therapies for neoplastic and inflammatory canine neurological disorders,” reports an editorial, “Chemotherapy and Other Pharmacotherapies for Canine Neurological Disorders,” published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science in 2023. 

Chemotherapy offers treatment approaches for neoplastic and inflammatory syndromes in dogs. 

Much promise exists in utilizing cellular therapies for veterinary neurologic conditions,” says a study, “Promise and Challenges: The Future of Cellular Therapy for Neurologic Disease in Companion Animals,” published in AVMA Journals in 2023. 

Cellular therapy targets inflammation-causing immune modification and helps replace the damaged nerve cells. 

How does CCD manifest as a neurological disorder in dogs?

CCD manifests as a neurological disorder in dogs by affecting the dog’s brain. CCD, or canine cognitive dysfunction, is an age-related condition equivalent to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in humans. 

Canine cognitive dysfunction is a neurodegenerative disorder caused by a build-up of a protein known as beta-amyloid. The protein has a toxic effect on neurons, making them die or stop working.

The brain’s information-processing capacities are reduced when working neurons die or stop working. Physical and behavioral changes increase because CCD in dogs is progressive and worsens over time. 

Can a canine recover from neurological issues?

Yes, a canine can recover from neurological issues. The chances of recovery depend on the type of neurological disorder and the treatment’s adequacy and promptness. 

Certain neurological conditions resolve with treatment; others require lifelong medication administration and extensive supportive care. Dogs with vestibular disease heal within two to three weeks of medical treatment, and dogs with disc disease regain normal life quality after surgery, for example.  

Dogs with Parkinson’s disease need continuous use of anti-pain meds and physical therapy, and dogs with seizures are managed with long-term use of antiepileptics.