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Warning Signs of Neurological Disorders in Canines

My dog, Misty, exhibited neurological signs. I hope to educate fellow dog guardians about neurological disorders in dogs.

Signs of neurological disorders in canines. Here's what to look out for.

Signs of neurological disorders in canines. Here's what to look out for.

How to Tell if Your Dog Has a Neurological Disorder

Like every pet owner, I confess that I am sometimes guilty of missing the 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.

Neurological Disorders Are Difficult to Diagnose

The difficulty with neurological disorders is that some of their symptoms can also be signs of other problems your pet may be having. Difficulty walking, for example, can be caused by pain in other areas of the body, just like head-shaking can be caused by mites in the ears or an inner ear infection. 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

  1. Stumbling, Lack of Balance, or Coordination
  2. Shaking of the Head
  3. Persistent Trembling
  4. Dragging of the Paws
  5. Darting or "Flickering" Eyes (Nystagmus)
  6. Visual Disturbances
  7. Disorientation, e.g. Staring at Blank Walls
  8. Chronic Tail-Chasing
  9. Seizures
  10. Pain
  11. Lack of Appetite or Anorexia

1. Stumbling, Lack of Balance, or Coordination

Any dog with a neurological disorder will be uncoordinated. This could be caused by any combination of factors, such as the onset of conditions like Parkinson's disease (yes, it affects dogs, too), chemical imbalances in the brain, infection, or a tumor of the brain.

Signs That Your Dog Is Having Trouble With Balance

  • Head tilt
  • Nausea
  • Falling or rolling
  • Tremors
  • Eyeballs that shake (nystagmus)
  • Lack of coordination
  • High-stepping

Misty had several episodes of not being able to walk and 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.

Head-shaking is a strong neurological symptom.

Head-shaking is a strong neurological symptom.

2. Shaking of the Head

No, the dog is not plugged into its earphones. Head-shaking is another sign of a neurological problem, and perhaps one that is fairly severe. A dog will 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 (like an inner ear infection), 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 tremor as well. It was certainly what happened in Misty’s case. That, together with a little whining, means you should seek emergency veterinary care. Be sure to rule out the other causes of shivering and trembling in dogs, like white dog shaker syndrome.

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4. Dragging of the Paws

If your dog suddenly starts to drag its feet instead of walking, go see the vet. This sudden deterioration of motor skills is a cause of concern and 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

  • Knuckling
  • Abnormal gait
  • Difficulty moving or paralysis of one limb, both limbs, or all four legs

It was certainly disconcerting to witness Misty stumbling and dragging her paws as the veterinary clinician tried to weigh her.

5. Darting or "Flickering" Eyes (Nystagmus)

Your dog’s eyes may "flicker" if it has an inherent neurological problem. Your dog may not be able to focus properly on its surroundings, and it may not be able to recognize you temporarily either. Similarly, vestibular disease patients often present with characteristic "darting eyes." This is a common condition in older dogs but may be idiopathic or without a known origin.

Misty’s eyes were turned in two directions and "flickering"—it was quite a traumatic sight. Thankfully, that episode is over!

6. Visual Disturbances

If your dog is suddenly having vision problems like blindness or walking into objects, it's possible that there is an underlying neurological problem. A neurologic dog will experience visual field defects, double vision, fluctuating vision (good one day and not the other), reduced clarity of vision, or may exhibit squinting and misalignment.

Disorientation or staring at blank walls is a neurological symptom.

Disorientation or staring at blank walls is a neurological symptom.

7. Disorientation (Staring at Blank Walls)

I remember asking this question once because I saw Misty starting at blank walls 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. This is also a condition that older dogs can exhibit (without neurological causes), simply due to age. It's important to note whether or not this behavior is new, as similar types of disorientation can also be associated with senior dog conditions or stroke.

8. Chronic Tail-Chasing

All dogs love chasing their tails. But when a dog exhibits this behavior too often, it is not just play—it is time to take them to the vet. Although dogs that are experiencing pain may exhibit this type of behavior, it is also a strong sign of a neurological disorder, especially if this behavior is chronic.

Being a Schnauzer, Misty has no tail to chase since it was docked as a puppy before we acquired her. Should tail-spinning become obsessive, do consult a veterinarian at once.

Graphic: A Dog Having a Seizure

9. Seizures

Chances are you that you know what a seizure is. If you see your dog seizing, make sure they're safe and won't hit anything, let the seizure pass, and take them to a veterinarian as soon as possible. If you can, take a video of the event to show to the veterinarian since it might help them with a diagnosis. Be sure to watch your fingers and limbs as your pet is seizing because disoriented dogs can accidentally bite.

Symptoms of Seizures

  • Sudden or violent shaking
  • Paddling
  • Vocalization
  • Dilation of pupils
  • Unresponsiveness or staring
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Salivation or drooling
  • Stiffness
  • Twitching
  • Involuntary urination or defecation

Seizures may be secondary to conditions like systemic infections in dogs, which is why it's important to obtain a proper diagnostic workup from your vet.

What Are the 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.