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What You Need to Know About Meningitis in Dogs

Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.

Meningitis can make a dog extremely ill, but is thankfully rare.

Meningitis can make a dog extremely ill, but is thankfully rare.

What Is Meningitis?

When people speak of meningitis, they often refer to it as a disease in its own right, when really it is a symptom of something else occurring in the body. Meningitis literally means an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord.

It can be caused by a number of conditions, both infectious and non-infectious. This means that while the inflammation is being treated, the underlying cause for it must also be determined to help the dog recover.

Some of the causes of meningitis include;

  • Infections (either viral, bacterial or fungal)
  • Parasites (such as heartworm and types of roundworm)
  • An immune-mediated inflammatory response (this is when the dog's own immune system begins attacking its own body and is considered the commonest form of meningitis seen in dogs)

Whatever has caused meningitis, it requires urgent veterinary treatment. Untreated meningitis is usually fatal; even with treatment, some pups will die from the condition.

Dogs suffering meningitis exhibit generalised pain and are lethargic

Dogs suffering meningitis exhibit generalised pain and are lethargic

Symptoms of Meningitis

Meningitis makes dogs extremely unwell. The three commonest symptoms are:

  • Generalised pain, which may be severe
  • Fever
  • Stiff or rigid neck

The dog will also lack energy and may be off its food.

Meningitis does not directly cause neurological (brain-related) symptoms, but some of the conditions that trigger it do. Dogs may have seizures, seem depressed, experience paralysis, blindness or begin to pace or walk in circles. They may also lose consciousness.

It is important to report all unusual behaviour you notice in your dog when speaking to your vet, as this may assist in narrowing down the diagnosis and the cause of the problem.

Meningitis can be triggered by parasites and bacteria the dog picks up

Meningitis can be triggered by parasites and bacteria the dog picks up

How Vets Diagnose and Treat Meningitis

Meningitis is a complicated condition because it is caused by a variety of problems, each requiring slightly different treatments. These can include

  • Steroids
  • Intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration
  • Antibiotics
  • Treatments for parasites

Most dogs are severely ill by the time they arrive at the vet and will be admitted to the veterinary hospital and started on medication. Steroids, antibiotics and fluids may all be given in an effort to stabilise the dog.

To confirm the dog has meningitis and to potentially show the cause, a cerebrospinal fluid tap (CSF) is performed. This requires the dog to be anaesthetised and a needle inserted in the neck or lower spine to take a small sample of CSF fluid. This will then be tested for a variety of factors which will help determine the course of treatment.

A vet may also consider performing an MRI scan or CT scan to get a better idea of what is occurring specifically around the brain.

Knowing what has triggered meningitis will help to narrow down the treatment options. If it is caused by an infection a broad-spectrum antibiotic will be given initially, and once the CSF sample has been analysed they can switch to antibiotics that target the specific bacteria behind the infection.

If a parasite is suspected, along with the antibiotics the dog may be given medications to eliminate the cause.

In cases where the cause of meningitis appears to be the dog's own immune system turning on them, steroids are prescribed. The dosage will begin high to bring meningitis under control and will then be gradually lowered. A dog may have to be on steroids for a year or more to prevent a relapse.

Viral meningitis is the hardest version of the condition to treat. There is no medication that can cure it and all the vet can do is support your dog as they battle the condition. Supportive care includes intravenous fluids to keep a dog hydrated, medications to relieve swelling on the brain and pain medications.

Dogs can make a full recovery from meningitis and return to normal life

Dogs can make a full recovery from meningitis and return to normal life

Will My Dog Recover?

The underlying cause of meningitis not only determines the treatment but also how well a dog will respond to it. Dogs whose condition responds well to steroids usually have the best prognosis, while those suffering from infectious forms of meningitis will be given a more guarded prognosis.

The good news is that many dogs survive meningitis and go on to live healthy, long lives. They may have physical or neurological side effects from the disease, which could impact on the forms of activity they do, or cause slight alterations in their personality. There is also always the possibility of a relapse, though this diminishes with time.

How Do I Prevent Meningitis?

Because meningitis is a symptom of a number of illnesses, rather than a disease in its own right, it is not possible to completely prevent it.

Infectious meningitis, which is triggered by parasites or certain canine illnesses such as parvovirus, can be partly prevented by vaccinating dogs and treating them regularly for parasites.

Immune-related meningitis is thought to possibly have a genetic cause and is impossible to prevent. Fortunately, it is a rare condition and usually responds well to steroids.

Though it is impossible to prevent all forms of meningitis, being alert to changes in your dog and knowing the signs of the condition can help to pick up early signs of meningitis. The sooner a dog is treated for the condition, the better the prognosis.

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.

© 2021 Sophie Jackson