Warning Signs of Neurological Disorders in Canines
Like every pet owner, I confess that I am sometimes guilty of missing signs that my dog is having health problems. I lost my Jack Russell to cancer and had a heart-stopping experience with my dog Misty. This experience made me realize how important it is to know what's going on with my dog's health to prevent the heartache of losing yet another pet.
In this case, I'm speaking specifically of neurological disorders, the signs of which are often ignored as finicky or frivolous. This is often the case with neurological disorders in humans as well.
The difficulty with neurological disorders is that some of their symptoms can also be the signs of other problems your pet may be having.
Difficulty in walking, for example, can be caused by pain in other areas of the body. Head shaking can be caused by mites in the ears. While many of these signs are not specific to neurological disorders, you should not rule out these disorders. If you suspect there's a problem, take your dog to the vet right away.
Signs of Neurological Disorders in Dogs
- Stumbling or Lack of Balance
- Head Shaking
- Persistent Trembling
- Dragging Paws
- Eyes Flickering
- Vision Problems
- Staring at Blank Walls
- Continual Tail Chasing
- Lack of Appetite
1. Stumbling or a Lack of Balance
Any dog with a neurological disorder will experience difficulties in coordinating movements. This could be caused by any combination of factors, such as the onset of diseases like Parkinson's disease (yes, it affects dogs too), chemical imbalances in the brain, an infection, or a brain tumor.
Other symptoms of imbalance can include:
- Head tilt
- Falling or rolling
- Eyeballs that shake
- Lack of coordination
Misty had several episodes of not being able to walk, falling on all fours every time she got up. I had to carry her to be weighed at the vets, where she again tumbled over in a vain attempt to stand. She finally managed to stand, and my husband and I heaved huge sighs of relief, at least for that minute!
The most important aspects of caring for a dog with a neurologic disorder are to follow your veterinarian’s treatment recommendations and to stay in close contact with him/her so you can quickly adapt to what might be a changing situation. At home, focus on your dog’s comfort and quality of life. Ensure that your dog is safe (you may need to block off stairs to prevent falls, for example), eating, drinking, has ample opportunities to go to the bathroom, and still feels like part of the family.— Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM, serves on the Pet Life Today advisory board.
2. Head Shaking
No, the dog is not plugged in to its earphones. The head shaking is another sign of a neurological problem, perhaps one that is more severe.
A dog does shake its head occasionally to get rid of excess water in its ears or when its head is wet. When it shakes its head to and fro without stopping, however, or without apparent cause, raise the alarm immediately.
That is exactly what happened to Misty when she experienced seizures. It took time for the head shaking to stop.
3. Persistent Trembling
It is not just the head that will shake uncontrollably. The rest of the muscles in the dog's body might experience a few tremors.
It was certainly what happened in Misty’s case. That, together with a little whining, tells you to make an immediate visit to the veterinary emergency room.
4. Dragging Paws Suddenly
If your dog suddenly enjoys dragging its feet instead of walking, go see the vet. This is not a simple canine misdemeanor. This sudden deterioration of motor skills is another neurological boo boo. It is a symptom of limb paresis, paralysis, or weakness.
Paresis is the reduced ability of an animal to move a limb, and paralysis is the complete inability to move a limb. Though difficulty moving can also be the result of physical symptoms, in some cases it can indicate trouble between the brain and the rest of the body.
Other symptoms include:
- Abnormal gait
- Difficulty moving or paralysis of one limb, both limbs, or all four legs
It was certainly disconcerting to witness Misty stumble and drag her paws as the veterinary clinician tried to weigh her.
5. Eyes Flickering
Your dog’s eyes may flicker if it has an inherent neurological problem, leaving it looking rather spaced out. It may not be able to focus properly on its surroundings, and it may not be able to recognize you temporarily either.
Misty’s eyes were turned in two directions and flashing and it was quite a traumatic sight. Thankfully, that episode is over!
6. Vision Problems
If your dog is suddenly having vision problems like blindness or walking into objects, it's possible that there is an underlying neurological problem.
7. Staring at Blank Walls
I remember asking this question once, because I saw Misty doing so from time to time. I had originally thought, as did the vet, that it was due to the pain she was already experiencing as a result of an infected womb.
I now know that improper brain function and disorientation is the cause of her staring (without reason) at the walls around her.
8. Continual Tail Chasing
All dogs love chasing their tails. When it does so too often, it is not just play—it is time to take it to the vet. Your dog's frustration because of the pain makes it turn around in circles. This lack of focus is another sign of a neurological disorder.
Being a schnauzer, Misty has no tail to chase since it was docked as a puppy before being sold to us. Should tail spinning become obsessive, do consult a veterinarian at once.
Chances are you that you know what a seizure is. If you see your dog experiencing one of these, make sure they're safe and won't hit anything and let the seizure pass. If you can, take a video of it to show to the veterinarian since it might help them diagnose your pooch.
- Sudden or violent shaking
- Dilation of pupils
- Dog is unresponsive or staring
- Dog loses consciousness
- Salivation or drooling
- Involuntary urination or defecation
Pain can be caused by many things. Some pains are caused by neurological issues.
Common signs of pain (this is not all-inclusive):
- Crying out
- Holding a limb up
- Low head carriage
If your dog is experiencing pain from normal sensations or touches, like putting on a collar, that's also a warning sign.
11. Lack of Appetite
Persistent nausea is yet another sign of a malfunction within the brain. Misty had bouts of nausea before her seizure. There are many causes of nausea, so if you observe this together with other symptoms, do not wait too long before taking your pet for a medical examination.
Misty’s symptoms remind me of some that I had when I suffered from brain tumors. I may not have spun around to try to catch a tail, but I did have inexplicable difficulty walking.
Dogs and humans can mirror each other where certain conditions and illnesses are concerned.
There are so many different types of neurological disorders, each with its own set of symptoms, that it’s impossible to come up with a definitive list of telltale signs. Add this to the fact that many non-neurological conditions can cause neurological symptoms (seizures as a result of low blood sugar levels, for example) and it’s safest to say that when dogs have persistent or severe abnormalities of any sort, owners should talk to their veterinarians.— Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM, serves on the Pet Life Today advisory board.
Other Signs of Nervous System Disorders
Here are some other symptoms that might indicate neurological trouble with your pooch:
- Difficulty swallowing or chewing
- Decreased facial movement
- Voice changes
- Muscle atrophy of the head
- Hearing loss
- Behavioral changes (like confusion, pacing, and wandering)
- Inability to open the mouth
- Dropped jaw
What's a Dog's Nervous System Like?
The nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and several different kinds of nerves that are found throughout the body. These create complex circuits through which animals experience and respond to sensations.
More Neurological Disorders in Pets
There are a host of neuromuscular diseases a pet may be suffering from, but one of the most common is Acquired Myasthenia Gravis, a disorder that interrupts communication between the nerves and muscles. The body’s immune system turns on itself, attacking junctions where neurons and muscles interconnect. Once this happens, the adjacent muscles cannot be controlled.
A dog may experience muscle weakness in the muscles affecting the eyes, facial expressions and esophagus. He may become fatigued easily.
This is a deterioration of the cerebellum or the brain that causes premature aging. The cerebellum is also the part of the brain that controls movement. While the cerebellum functions normally through puppyhood, specific cells known as the Purkinje cells will deteriorate after birth. Occasionally, other cells in the brain are affected as well.
Your pet may appear haggard and not be able to walk properly.
This is an umbrella term covering a group of disorders that affect the nerves. These disorders strike multiple nerves in the body and they can be in any combination. Myeline, a fatty liquid that acts as an insulator coat, is lost through a process called demylineation. Electric signals in the nerves are lost, impeding function, and causing a lack of orientation and improper motor coordination. The degeneration of myeline can result in spatial nerve disorders (inability to negotiate space), sensory nerve disorders (weakness or paralysis) and a malfunctioning thyroid gland. Do note that if your pet is being medicated for cancer, inherited polyneuropathy may be a side effect of the medication.
Muscle weakness (especially in the foot and leg) Foot deformities. Muscle wasting (shrinking and weakness) in the legs. Curved spine. Loss of pain sensitivity.
This is an inherited condition that manifests itself in constant seizures. It has varied causes and is common in many dogs.
Seizures, amnesia, anxiety, depression, headache, sleepiness, staring spells, or temporary paralysis after a seizure
This condition is found in dogs as much as it is in humans. Parkinsons is caused by a loss of a neurotransmitter, dopamine, in nerve cells. Symptoms include tremors, stiff muscles or movement, and difficulty with balancing and walking. The difference between Parkinson's in dogs and humans is that it is a disease that affects mainly the elderly in humans, while in dogs, it is the exact opposite, mainly striking young dogs or pups.
Symptoms are slow movement, stiffness, and loss of balance.
This is a common neurological disease that affects the spinal cords in adult dogs. Typically, the dog will lose function of its rear legs and, eventually, will be paralyzed.
Progressive weakness of the hind limbs. Worn nails. Difficulty rising. Stumbling. Knuckling of the toes. Scuffing hind feet. Wearing of the inner digits of the rear paws. Loss of muscle in the rear legs.
What Happened to My Dog
I want to share my experience, so others can read the signs before it is too late. This article is to help you recognize the symptoms of what might be neurological problems in your dog so you can take it to the vet and have it diagnosed.
My pet schnauzer Misty had just had an infected womb removed when she went to the bathroom and began shaking her head uncontrollably.
When it happened, the trembling sent waves of panic through me because it reminded me of an episode I'd gone through myself. My husband and I rushed her to the vet immediately.
She had experienced a seizure, a quaking, trembling and shaking that can be traumatic to witness. She was hospitalized and awaited further diagnosis. Her head continued to shake, though she was eating and drinking well.
The sad part of the whole episode was that I should have read the signs of the disorders much earlier, even more so because I have been the victim of brain tumors and seizures myself.
Everything in the amazing phenomenon of life begins with the brain. I hope that sharing this information with you will provide hope for a happier, healthier man's best friend!
FAQ About Disorders and Health Problems in Dogs
What are signs of infection in dogs?
Some signs of infection in dogs include: Sudden fever and illness, sore muscles, reluctance to move, stiffness in muscles, legs, and gait, shivering, weakness, depression, lack of appetite, increased thirst, and urination (may be indicative of chronic renal (kidney) failure, progressing to inability to urinate).
What are the signs of organ failure in dogs?
Some signs of organ failure in dogs include: Vomiting, lethargy, diarrhea, constipation, depression, weight loss, increased thirst, and lack of appetite (anorexia).
What is the most common cause of death in dogs?
The most frequent causes of death among old dogs are cancer, cardiac failure, and renal (kidney) failure. In younger dogs, the most frequent causes are accidents and immune-mediated diseases.
What diseases kill dogs?
A few diseases that all dog owners should be made aware of are: Canine distemper, canine influenza ("canine flu" or "dog flu"), canine parvovirus, external parasites (ticks, fleas and mange), and fungal infections (blastomycosis, histoplasmosis, cryptococcosis, coccidioidomycosis, etc.).
Other Disorders Common in Dogs
In dogs, hip dysplasia is an abnormal formation of the hip socket that, in its more severe form, can eventually cause crippling lameness and painful arthritis of the joints. It is a genetic trait that is affected by environmental factors.
Signs of hip dysplasia include difficulty rising or laying down, difficulty going up and down stairs, inability to jump onto furniture or into a vehicle and reluctance to run or walk.
Urinary Bladder Stones
Bladder stones are hard masses of minerals in your bladder. Bladder stones develop when the minerals in concentrated urine crystallize.
Symptoms include straining to urinate, urinary accidents, increased frequency of urination and blood in the urine.
Cardiovascular disease generally refers to conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke. Other heart conditions, such as those that affect your heart's muscle, valves or rhythm, also are considered forms of heart disease.
Signs of heart failure such as coughing, weakness, poor appetite, abdominal distention, difficulty breathing and collapse.
Canine degenerative myelopathy, also known as chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy, is an incurable, progressive disease of the canine spinal cord that is similar in many ways to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
The failure of nerve signal transmission within the mid-to-lower spinal cord results in symptoms of the hind legs such as weakness, wobbliness, dragging of the hind feet, inability to stand and eventually paralysis.
Brachycephalic syndrome is a pathological condition affecting short nosed dogs and cats which can lead to severe respiratory distress.
Snoring and snorting sounds. The exaggerated breathing sounds.
Common Health Problems in Dogs
Inflammation of one or more joints, causing pain and stiffness that can worsen with age.
It can cause swelling, stiffness and pain. Symptoms may include limping or a change in gait, reluctance to move, aversion to stairs, difficulty standing or walking, and exhibiting pain when picked up. A dog may lick or chew at the aching joint and can show irritability or aggression.
A serious gum infection that damages gums and can destroy the jawbone.
Gums can become inflamed when mouth bacteria turns into plaque on the teeth. Saliva hardens plaque and creates tartar. Bacteria-laden plaque and tartar on the teeth can spread under the gum line and cause swelling.
A group of diseases that result in too much sugar in the blood (high blood glucose).
Symptoms of diabetes include frequent thirst and increased urination, weight loss, fatigue, irritability, recurring infections, blurred vision, and slow-healing cuts or bruises.
Complete or partial loss of vision.
Signs of vision loss include bumping into things, falling, dilated pupils and red or irritated eyes.
Longstanding disease of the kidneys leading to renal failure.
You may see apathy, loss of appetite, weight loss, vomiting, and brown discoloring on the tongue and the dog may develop an ammonia smell to their breath.
- "Gum Disease Treatment". nhs.uk. Retrieved 13 March 2018.
- "Gum Disease Complications". nhs.uk. Retrieved 13 March 2018.
- James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Colorado State University. 2015. "Pet Health: An animal’s neurological problems are not all in your head"
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.