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Neurological Issues in Dogs

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Dog parents are often up to date on common canine health conditions, but dog neurology may be a health concentration with which people need to become more familiar. Dealing with the complex nervous system that’s intertwined in a network between the brain, spinal cord, and nerves, neurological issues may be a bit more intricate in diagnosis and treatment.

Neurological Issues in Dogs

Like many other types of canine health issues, neurological conditions can also affect a dog of any age. However, it’s relatively more common to see these conditions appear in older dogs. That said, it’s essential that the signs of a neurological disorder are not shrugged aside and unofficially labeled as “signs of aging,” which unfortunately happens all too often.

When discussing common canine neurological issues and disorders, you may most frequently hear about:

  • Cerebellar Degeneration is a brain disease that specifically affects the cerebellum, which is the area of the brain that controls voluntary movements. With this condition, the cells in the cerebellum are attacked, leading to the cells slowly dying and often causing a loss of balance and coordination in your dog. Though the symptoms may be slow to onset, they can gradually become more severe. Cerebellar degeneration can appear at any age in many breeds, with some at a higher risk than others. This condition is similar to cerebellar hypoplasia, but specific differences set them apart as separate issues.

  • Vestibular Disease more often occurs in older dogs and will affect a canine’s balance. Although this disease is considered non-progressive, it can appear rather suddenly. If your dog is diagnosed with vestibular disease, you’ll notice that they may seem disoriented and have a loss of balance, irregular head tilts, or jerky eye movements. Typically, with this condition, symptoms will appear at their worst during the first 24 or 48 hours, but thankfully within a few days, most dogs begin showing signs of improvement. Plus, after receiving proper treatment, the prognosis is often good.

  • Wobbler’s Syndrome, also called “cervical spondylomyelopathy,” can technically occur in any dog, but large and giant breeds are at a much higher risk. With this condition, canines experience spinal cord and nerve root compression. Dogs with this condition often present signs such as loss of coordination in their rear limbs, which may also progress to the front limbs. You may notice them dragging their feet more due to a loss of muscle, increased weakness, and signs of neck pain.

  • Polyneuropathy is a disorder that affects multiple peripheral nerves, which are nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. There are many types of polyneuropathies, meaning symptoms can vary and even be a bit inconsistent. If you notice changes in your dog, such as a lack of coordination, leg weakness, tremors, difficulty swallowing, or a loss of pain sensation, it’s essential that you take your pup to their veterinarian for a proper check-up and diagnosis. Since polyneuropathy can vary, your dog’s treatment options depend on their unique condition.

  • Epilepsy is arguably one of the better-known neurological issues that can affect dogs. There are two main types of epilepsy (symptomatic and idiopathic) which refer to the causes being known (symptomatic) and unknown (idiopathic). With the seizures themselves, they can be categorized into generalized or grand mal, focal, and complex focal. With proper care and management of this condition, most dogs can go on to live a happy and playful life, nearly as normal as before their diagnosis.

Beyond this list, other common neurological issues such as degenerative myelopathy (DM), intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), and Parkinson’s disease can affect canines of various breeds and ages.

Signs of Neurological Issues in Dogs

Although there are various neurological issues that can affect dogs, they often share the same list of symptoms which can be physical, behavioral, or both. These can include:

  1. Lethargy
  2. Disorientation
  3. Lack of coordination
  4. Loss of balance
  5. Seizures
  6. Impaired vision or loss of vision
  7. Incontinence/accidents in the house
  8. Altered activity level
  9. Altered sleeping schedule
  10. Overall weakness
  11. Head shaking
  12. Dragging feet or walking on knuckles
  13. Loss of appetite
  14. Signs of pain
  15. Trembling
  16. Excessive vocalization

Neurological disorders in dogs can present themselves differently depending on the specific condition. In some instances, your dog may have a gradual progression of their illness, while in other cases, symptoms can appear suddenly and change drastically.

Although it may seem a tad overwhelming to keep track of the various neurology-related health issues and their symptoms, remember that you know your four-legged pal best. If you notice a change in their behavior or physical health, it’s crucial you contact your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Causes of Neurological Issues in Dogs

A plethora of causes can bring on neurological issues. A dog’s brain, spinal cord, and nerves are all sensitive to any force, trauma, or disruption brought on by any number of accidents, injuries, or health conditions. Even minute changes, such as a variance in normal blood flow or an alteration in chemical levels, can affect neurological function.

How To Test for Neurological Disorders in Dogs

Upon taking your dog to their veterinarian, they will want to run multiple tests and a dog neurological exam to deliver a proper diagnosis. Depending on your pup’s condition, your veterinarian may even refer you to a specialist.

Your veterinarian will most likely start the process of diagnosing your dog by first asking you questions about their behavior and health: When did you first notice the symptoms? Have they progressed or gotten better? Have any new signs appeared? Any relevant information you can provide, no matter how minuscule you think it may be, could prove quite helpful to your veterinarian. If your dog’s symptoms include a lack of balance or coordination, providing video evidence can also be beneficial for your veterinarian to understand better what is occurring.

After talking with you, your veterinarian will then want to perform a complete exam. A complete neurological exam for your dog may include an array of tests and scans, including X-rays, MRI, and CT scans. Blood tests are also a standard part of this process. Sometimes, taking a sample of your dog’s spinal fluid may also be necessary.

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Can Neurological Disorders in Dogs Be Cured?

With canine neurological disorders, it can be helpful to understand the nuances between a ‘cure’ and ‘treatment.’ When a condition has a cure, there is a solution that can make the issue go away for good. Conversely, a treatment means the health problem is still present but is being actively managed, as are its symptoms.

Since many different types of neurological disorders can affect canines, specific cures and treatments will vary significantly from one case to another. Your dog's overall health, as well as the condition itself, will also be taken into consideration. Unfortunately, more often than not, neurological issues don’t have a cure. However, with how far veterinary medicine has progressed over the years, there are often multiple treatment options to consider that can help you manage your dog’s condition.

In severe cases, surgery may be necessary, but in many other circumstances, medication can help manage symptoms or slow progression. In addition, some veterinarians may recommend physical exercises to help strengthen your dog’s limbs, enrichment activities to help provide mental stimulation, and a change in diet to reflect your dog’s new needs.

It is not unusual for dogs with neurological disorders to eventually have mobility issues, though this can look different from one dog to the next. However, the wonderful thing about canines is that they rarely let this slight setback affect their positive attitude and often have no plans to slow down. With this in mind, the good news is that there are products in the market today to help dogs continue to live active lives even if they have a unique mobility need.

Dog wheelchairs are an excellent solution for many. They provide extra support for a pup that may easily lose balance, and they can give dogs with weakened hind limbs the opportunity to exercise. Wheelchairs can be used as needed or introduced as full-time mobility assistance devices. If introducing a wheelchair, be sure to work closely with your veterinarian and consider reaching out to a certified dog behaviorist to ensure the acclimation process and training is safe, effective, and positive for your pup.

A no-knuckle training sock can help correct your dog’s paw position while walking and encourage your dog to lift their foot slightly higher instead of dragging it. These socks are only meant to be worn for a few minutes at a time, so be sure to remove them immediately after a short walk. Similar to the socks, there are also dog boots with traction on the bottom that could prove helpful. Although it’s crucial that you read the boot directions beforehand, most can be worn much longer than no-knuckling socks. Boots can protect from scraping wounds and will help provide better traction on slippery tile or hardwood floors, where your pup could otherwise accidentally slip or fall. In addition to boots, you can place rugs or yoga mats strategically around the house to provide added traction for your unstable pup.

There’s no doubt that learning your dog has a neurological condition can be an uncertain time as a dog parent—there can be a lot of unknowns. However, by working with your veterinarian and following their treatment plan, you can still provide your dog with an active and happy lifestyle.

An ASPCA® Pet Health Insurance plan can help you with eligible costs for covered conditions like surgery expenses for accidents and help provide peace of mind that your pet can receive the care they need. Check out our online resources to learn more about your insurance options and get a free quote today. The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.

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