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7 Neurological Issues in Dogs & Common Signs to Keep in Mind (Vet Answer)

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By Dr. Chantal Villeneuve

a border collie dog looking sick covered with blanket on couch

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Written by

Dr. Chantal Villeneuve

MS BVetMed (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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The nervous is responsible for coordinating movement, senses, bodily function, behavior, and more.

Problems in the nervous system can create numerous issues, from a loss of smell to a loss of control of the bowels. However, there are certain signs that are more common than others and are red flags for nervous system dysfunction. These signs can be hard to pick up on and can be difficult to distinguish from problems in other systems.

Here is a quick discussion of some of the more common neurological changes that can occur.

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The 7 Neurological Problems in Dogs

The signs discussed above can be the result of many different neurological problems. The only way to determine which problem has affected your dog will be after a vet’s thorough assessment. However, the following seven signs can give you some insight as to what could have happened to your dog.

1. Congenital Problems

Congenital neurological problems begin at birth. They can be either genetically derived or they can occur because of a mistake during development in the womb. A congenital neurological disorder can be so severe that the puppy cannot survive for long, and you might not even know what exactly the problem was. Other problems might be less severe and manageable.

Hydrocephalus, a common congenital neurological problem, is when there is too much fluid in the brain, causing it to swell and becomes restricted by the skull. The increased pressure reduces the efficacy of the brain.

Signs of congenital problems include the following:
  • Abnormal behavior
  • Wobbly and uncoordinated walking
  • Circling or rolling
  • Unable to learn new things
  • Depression or lethargy
mastiff dog lying on the floor looking away
Image Credit: Helen of Troy, Shutterstock

2. Epilepsy

An epileptic dog will have repeated seizures. A seizure in a dog occurs when the brain misfires and sends conflicting signals to the body. As a result, the dog loses control of their body and usually twitches and convulses on the floor.

They may have one or a cluster of numerous seizures every few days, weeks, or even months. There may not be any pattern to the seizures onset or there may be a trigger, depending on the disease.

If you are unsure if your dog is epileptic, look for common signs of a seizure:
  • Loss of consciousness or remain unconscious
  • Loss of body control
  • Paddling of the limbs
  • Convulsions

Epilepsy can be an inherited problem (particularly in certain pure breeds), or it can be an acquired problem from trauma, infection, metabolic disease, cancer, or anything that changes the brain’s biochemistry.

3. Trauma

One of the most common issues with the nervous system is trauma. Injury to the brain, the spinal cord, or the peripheral nerves can cause irreparable damage. Trauma to the spinal cord can cause paralysis or just weakness in one leg, both hind legs or even all four legs.

In brain trauma, there are several signs, which could be any of the following:
  • Paralysis
  • Pain
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Weakness and incoordination
  • Unconsciousness

Any injury should be dealt with carefully. If you are unsure how serious the injury is, take the dog to the vet. Keep them from moving around and panicking; do not let them hurt themselves more as they are frightened.

sick german shepherd dog unable to play
Image Credit: Ivor Ilic, Pixabay

4. Meningitis and Encephalitis

Inflammation of the brain is called encephalitis. Inflammation of the tissues surrounding the brain is called meningitis. They can occur separately or together, but both can cause neurological problems and can be dangerous. The inflammation can be a result of (but not limited to) trauma, bacteria, viruses, and genetics.
The signs of meningitis or encephalitis can be vague and hard to pinpoint. Often the inflammation is widespread and can look like other diseases. Especially, because it is so difficult to test the nervous system directly it may be difficult to diagnose it.

Some of the more common signs though include:
  • Fever
  • Painful and stiff neck or back
  • Muscle spasms
  • Being extra sensitive to touch

5. Rabies

Rabies is a deadly disease that infects mammals, including dogs and humans. It is caused by a virus that infects the nervous systems and usually starts with behavioral changes that progress to complete paralysis and death.

Rabies is not common in dogs where the country has widespread vaccination programs, like the United States. However, it is still taken seriously when strange dogs bite because their vaccination history is unknown.

Signs of rabies can include the following:
  • Abnormal behavior
  • Paralysis
  • Inappetence
  • Grumpiness
  • Weakness and incoordination
Rabid dog growling angrily
Image Credit: Victoria-Antonova, Shutterstock

6. Vestibular Disease

The vestibular system is a complex sensory system that helps an animal orient its body in space; it also helps with balance and keeping everything upright and stable. The system itself is contained within the skull, right by the ears, working to create balance.

Problems with the vestibular system cause a loss of balance so the dog struggles to stay upright and remain oriented in space.

They no longer know which way is up and so can adopt strange clinical signs:
  • Circling
  • Head tilt
  • Weakness and incoordination
  • Falling over
  • Uncontrolled rolling on the floor
  • Leaning to one side
  • Eye twitches
  • Depression and lethargy

7. Loss of Vision or Hearing

Problems with both vision and hearing are common in dogs, but they are difficult to pinpoint and classify. We all might be surprised to know just how many dogs struggle to see or hear clearly. Usually, if they can see or hear enough, they can muddle along without any real loss of quality of life.

Since we can’t ask them, knowing if there are issues with vision or hear is difficult. Even our clinical tests can be unreliable because dogs are so good at adapting and responding strangely to the vet anyway.

However, both a loss of vision and hearing can be a sign of other problems, which need to be sorted out to prevent other problems. For example, a loss of eyesight can be a problem caused by undiagnosed or uncontrolled diabetes, so always get your dog checked.

Common signs of vision or hearing loss are as follows:
  • Not responding to your call the way they used to
  • Not being able to tell where you are from just the sound of your voice
  • Missing small or hard to see objects
  • Mistaking large shadowy objects for scary or suspicious monsters
  • Making obedience mistakes they never used to
  • Making more mistakes in the dark
blind border collie
Image Credit: Safelight Images, Shutterstock

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Final Thoughts

This article gave you a solid foundation to neurological issues and signs of a problem. With a system as complex as the nervous system, it is difficult to describe all the signs, problems, and diseases a dog could possibly have. A veterinarian will be able to help you start to unwind your own dog’s complex problems. And it might be helpful to get a neurologist—a vet that specializes in neurology—to help as well.

Finding just the right treatment for your own dog’s problems is the trick to good veterinary medicine.

Featured Image Credit: Lindsay Helms, Shutterstock

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