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Neurological Disorders in Dogs

What Are Neurological Disorders in Dogs?

Neurological disorders in dogs encompass a spectrum of conditions that affect the functioning of the nervous system. Your dog’s nervous system serves as the central control center, overseeing essential functions such as breathing and metabolic regulation, as well as shaping their individual personality traits.

These disorders can manifest in various forms, ranging from physical ailments to cognitive impairments that hinder your dog’s ability to comprehend and respond to commands effectively. Delve further into the intricacies of your dog’s nervous system to identify signs indicating potential issues and learn how to respond accordingly.

Anatomy of a Dog’s Nervous System

The dog’s nervous system comprises the brain, spinal cord, and nerves, collaborating to regulate the overall physical, mental, and emotional well-being of your pet.

At the core of this system, the brain serves as the primary cognitive organ. It’s segmented into three key regions:

  • Brainstem: Responsible for overseeing fundamental life-sustaining functions such as breathing and digestion, operating seamlessly without conscious effort.
  • Cerebrum: The epicenter of higher cognitive functions, including learning commands like sitting or house-training.
  • Cerebellum: Governs all movement and motor activities, facilitating actions like walking and jumping.

Originating from the base of the brain, the spinal cord extends down the spinal column to the tail. Comprising bundles of nerve fibers, the spinal cord facilitates the transmission of impulses to and from the brain. This includes sensory feedback from the body (e.g., temperature perception, tactile sensations) and directives from the brain regulating movement and other physiological processes.

How Does a Dog’s Nervous System Work?

The dog’s nervous system encompasses all the nerves branching out from the spinal cord and extending to every part of its body. Some nerves convey messages from the body to the spinal cord, which are then relayed to the brain for processing and action. Others transmit commands from the brain to the body, such as barking at a perceived threat or retracting a paw from hot asphalt.

The dog’s nervous system operates through two interrelated systems:

  • Central Nervous System (CNS): This comprises the brain, spinal cord, and associated nerves. These nerves can be categorized into sympathetic and parasympathetic functions. The sympathetic nervous system governs responses related to “fight or flight,” including heart rate, blood vessel dilation, lung function, and muscle activation. For instance, when a dog spots a prey animal, the sympathetic nervous system may trigger their pursuit response.
  • Peripheral Nervous System (PNS): The PNS encompasses all nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, often associated with “rest and digest” functions. These nerves become active during relaxed states, such as during digestion or periods of rest.


Neurological disorders in dogs can manifest in various ways, ranging from subtle indications like muscle twitches or mild discomfort to more severe symptoms such as seizures or paralysis. Some common signs that may suggest a neurological disorder in dogs include:

  • Lack of coordination (ataxia)
  • Feet knuckling over
  • Rapid and unusual eye movements (nystagmus)
  • Head tilt or circling
  • Difficulty in walking
  • Inappropriate mental activity
  • Seizures
  • Muscle tremors, twitching, or trembling
  • Weakness in the hindquarters
  • Disorientation


Neurological disorders in dogs stem from various causes, including genetic disorders which certain breeds may be predisposed to. Additionally, they can arise from factors such as cancer, trauma, and exposure to toxins.

Brain tumors are a potential primary cause of seizures or alterations in a dog’s behavior. Symptoms of spinal tumors may mimic those of intervertebral disc disease, presenting with back pain, weakness in the hindquarters, or difficulty in walking. Ingesting toxins like chocolate or antifreeze can result in seizures, stumbling, and lack of coordination. Traumatic incidents such as being hit by a car can also precipitate brain and spinal complications.

Common Neurological Disorders in Dogs

Here are some of the most prevalent neurological disorders seen in dogs:

Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD): This condition occurs when the material within a dog’s spinal discs bulges or ruptures, compressing the spinal cord beneath and disrupting nerve connections. Although IVDD can affect any breed, it’s most common in breeds with long backs such as Dachshunds, Basset Hounds, Cocker Spaniels, French Bulldogs, and Beagles. Symptoms include reluctance to jump, knuckling over, and in severe cases, loss of hind end mobility. Treatment ranges from medical management with anti-inflammatories and rest to surgical intervention.

Seizures: Seizures involve uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain, often accompanied by physical convulsions. Dogs experiencing seizures may lose bladder or bowel control and could be caused by toxins, underlying illnesses, brain tumors, trauma, or genetics. Idiopathic epilepsy is a common cause treated with long-term medications like levetiracetam, phenobarbital, or potassium bromide.

Vestibular Disease: This condition manifests as sudden loss of balance and coordination, accompanied by symptoms like circling, head tilt, and nystagmus (jerking eye movements). It’s more prevalent in senior dogs and may stem from ear infections or occur spontaneously. Treatment includes medications to manage nausea and supportive care.

Cognitive Dysfunction: Also known as dementia, cognitive dysfunction affects aging dogs’ brains, leading to disorientation, confusion, and behavioral changes. Management involves a combination of medication, supplements, and dietary adjustments to slow down progression. Physical activity and mental stimulation can also help alleviate symptoms.

Wobbler Syndrome: Wobbler syndrome, or cervical spondylomyelopathy, results in an uncoordinated gait, foot dragging, and neck pain due to spinal cord compression. It’s common in large-breed dogs like Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Weimaraners, and Rottweilers. Treatment may involve rest, anti-inflammatory drugs, or nerve pain medications.

Degenerative Myelopathy (DM): DM affects the spinal cord, causing weakness and eventual paralysis in the hind end, often resembling arthritis or hip dysplasia. It’s prevalent in older German Shepherds and is believed to be genetically linked. While there’s no cure, maintaining activity and managing pain can slow progression.

Meningitis, Encephalitis, and Encephalomyelitis: Inflammation of the brain, spinal cord, or surrounding membranes may cause symptoms like fever, head tilt, lack of balance, muscle tremors, blindness, and seizures. Diagnosis involves imaging and fluid analysis, with treatment focusing on medication to eliminate infections and reduce inflammation.

These disorders require prompt veterinary attention and tailored treatment plans to improve the dog’s quality of life and manage symptoms effectively.


When a dog exhibits signs of a neurological disorder, veterinarians follow specific steps to diagnose the issue. Initially, they gather a comprehensive history from the pet owner, including details about potential exposure to toxins or any history of trauma.

For dogs experiencing seizures, veterinarians may inquire about the duration and frequency of episodes, the onset of the first seizure, and the dog’s behavior during the seizure, such as convulsions or loss of consciousness. Providing a video recording of the dog’s unusual behavior can aid in diagnosis.

Following a physical examination, veterinarians typically conduct diagnostic tests, including blood work and X-rays. In some cases, spinal fluid taps are recommended to analyze cerebrospinal fluid for signs of infection or cancer.

Veterinarians may also suggest consulting a veterinary neurologist who possesses specialized knowledge of neurological diseases. These specialists have access to advanced imaging techniques like CT scans and MRIs, which are invaluable for visualizing structures such as the spinal cord, discs, or the brain.


The approach to treating neurological disorders in dogs varies based on the specific nature of the condition and may involve lifestyle adjustments, medications, or surgical interventions.


Medication stands as the primary treatment approach for most neurological disorders in dogs. Seizure disorders necessitate anti-epileptic drugs administered throughout the dog’s life, often requiring regular monitoring for necessary dose adjustments. This monitoring typically involves periodic bloodwork and examinations.

Anti-inflammatory medications like steroids prove beneficial for many dogs with spinal cord compression. However, steroids may trigger side effects such as increased thirst, urination, appetite, and panting. Owners should ensure dogs on steroids have ample opportunities to urinate to prevent accidents indoors. Monitoring their diet and regulating food portions becomes crucial, as increased appetite may lead to overeating and weight gain, potentially exacerbating the underlying neurological condition and shortening the dog’s lifespan.

Supplements and Prescription Diets

Supplements and specialized diets play a significant role in managing various neurological disorders in dogs. SAMe, known for its anti-inflammatory properties, can be advantageous for certain pets. Additionally, commercial diets such as Purina Neurocare and Hills b/d have demonstrated effectiveness in slowing the progression of cognitive dysfunction and decreasing the frequency of seizure episodes.


Neurosurgery procedures are performed by specialized neurology experts and necessitate advanced diagnostic procedures such as CT or MRI scans before surgery. While surgery on the back, neck, or brain can be costly, it may represent the most favorable option for your pet’s well-being. It’s essential to comprehend all associated expenses and diligently adhere to post-operative guidelines. Typically, follow-up appointments can be scheduled with your pet’s regular veterinarian.

Living and Management

Managing neurological disorders in dogs is crucial for preserving their quality of life. While some conditions are common and manageable, others may necessitate a diagnostic journey with a neurology specialist to attain answers.

Adhering to prescribed medication instructions is paramount. If any unexpected or troubling side effects arise, promptly contact your veterinarian for guidance. Certain medications, such as phenobarbital, may initially induce dramatic side effects like wobbling and stumbling, which typically diminish over time. Your veterinarian serves as the most reliable source for explaining medication side effects and making necessary adjustments.

Neurological Disorders in Dogs FAQs

Can you prevent neurological disorders in dogs?

Preventing many neurological disorders can be challenging since several are inherited. However, for breeds like Dachshunds prone to IVDD, environmental changes and behavioral modifications can help reduce risks.

Training your dog to use steps or a ramp to access furniture instead of jumping can minimize strain on the spine. Maintaining your pet’s body weight within an ideal range is crucial, as obesity correlates with increased morbidity risk in many neurological conditions. Additionally, ensuring your pet is not exposed to toxins is essential—keep hazardous pesticides, human food, and prescription medications safely stored out of reach.

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