Warning Signs of Neurological Disorders in Canines
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
- Stumbling, Lack of Balance, or Coordination
- Shaking of the Head
- Persistent Trembling
- Dragging of the Paws
- Darting or "Flickering" Eyes (Nystagmus)
- Visual Disturbances
- Disorientation, e.g. Staring at Blank Walls
- Chronic Tail-Chasing
- Lack of Appetite or Anorexia
Video: Neurological Veterinary Exam
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
- Falling or rolling
- Eyeballs that shake (nystagmus)
- Lack of coordination
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.
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.
Video: A Dog With Neurological Signs
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:
- 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.
Video: Vestibular Disease or Abnormal Eye Movements
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.
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.
Video: A Dog Having a Seizure
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
- Dilation of pupils
- Unresponsiveness or staring
- Loss of consciousness
- Salivation or drooling
- 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.
Pain can be caused by many things, and some pain is caused by neurological issues. Be sure to rule out arthritis and injury.
Common signs of pain (this is not an all-inclusive list):
- Crying out
- Holding a limb up
- Low head carriage
If your dog is experiencing pain from normal sensations or touch, like putting on a collar, that's also a warning sign that something neurological is going on.
11. Lack of Appetite or Anorexia
Persistent nausea is yet another sign of a malfunction of 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 in for medical examination.
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
Misty’s symptoms remind me of some that I had when I suffered from brain tumors. I may not have spun around trying 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.
Here are some other symptoms that might indicate neurological trouble with your dog:
- Difficulty swallowing or chewing
- Decreased facial movement
- Vocal abnormalities and changes
- Muscular atrophy of the head
- Hearing loss
- Behavioral changes (e.g. confusion, pacing, and wandering)
- Inability to open the mouth
- A dropped or droopy jaw
How Does the Nervous System Function?
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 Dogs
Acquired myasthenia gravis 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 muscular weakness of the eyes, face, and esophagus. He or she may be easily fatigued.
Deterioration of the cerebellum or the brain; causes premature aging. The cerebellum controls movement, and when functioning normally in puppyhood, specific cells known as the Purkinje cells, deteriorate after birth. Occasionally, other cells in the brain are affected as well.
Your pet may will not be able to walk properly—exhibiting incoordination, balancing problems, and an abnormal gait.
This term covers a group of disorders that affect the nerves in any combination. Myeline, a fatty liquid that acts as an insulator, is lost through a process called demyelination. 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, polyneuropathy may be a side effect of the medication. Inherited polyneuropathy has a genetic component.
Muscle weakness (especially in the feet and legs). Foot deformities. Muscle wasting (shrinking and weakness) in the legs. Curved spine. Loss of sensation.
This is an inherited condition that manifests as constant seizures. It has varied causes and is common in many dogs.
Symptoms include amnesia, anxiety, depression, headache, sleepiness, staring spells, or temporary paralysis after a seizure.
Caused by a loss of a neurotransmitter, dopamine, in nerve cells. Symptoms include tremors, stiff muscles or movement, and difficulty with balancing and walking. Parkinson's can affect young dogs or pups.
Symptoms include slow movement, stiffness, and loss of balance.
This is a common neurological disease that affects the spinal cord in adult dogs. Typically, the dog will lose function of its rear legs and eventually become paralyzed.
Progressive weakness of the hind limbs, worn nails, difficulty rising, stumbling, knuckling of the toes, scuffing of the hind feet, wearing of the inner digits of the rear paws, and loss of muscle in the rear legs.
My Dog's Neurological Symptoms and Treatment
My pet Schnauzer, Misty, had just undergone a hysterectomy due to infection. One day 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.
Misty had a seizure and was quaking, trembling, and shaking. It was quite 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 recognized the signs much earlier, even more so because I have been the victim of brain tumors and seizures myself.
I wanted to share my experience so that others can read the signs before it is too late. I wrote this article to help you recognize the symptoms of what might be neurological problems in your dog so you can take him or her to the vet and have them diagnosed. 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 canine best friend!
- 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.