Neurological Health

Your dog’s neurologic system is like an intricate network of wires that leads to the main control center—his brain. Like lines of communication throughout a building, if your dog develops a problem with his brain, spinal cord, or a nerve, his entire body can be affected. Neurologic conditions can cause problems you may expect, such as weakness, paralysis, and seizures, but may also have effects that seem unrelated, such as vomiting or dilated pupils. Familiarity with common neurologic problems and signs can help you recognize potential problems with your dog’s nervous system. 

Neurologic Signs in Dogs

Neurologic signs can develop after a traumatic event that causes nervous system damage, or may appear suddenly when an underlying neurologic problem progresses to the point of finally causing visible symptoms. Neurologic signs in dogs include:

  • Weakness, incoordination, or stumbling
  • Muscle tremors
  • Pupillary changes, such as excessively dilated or constricted pupils, or different-sized pupils
  • Nystagmus (i.e., a rapid, back-and-forth motion of the eyes)
  • Neck or back pain
  • Paralysis
  • Vomiting
  • Head tilt
  • Loss of consciousness 
  • Seizures

If you notice any of these problems in your dog, contact your family veterinarian immediately.

Neurologic Conditions in Dogs

The following neurologic conditions are commonly seen in dogs: 

  • Idiopathic vestibular syndrome The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and controls balance and coordination. Idiopathic vestibular syndrome generally develops suddenly with no known cause and most often affects older dogs—thus its alternate name, “old dog vestibular disease.” Like a severe case of vertigo, vestibular disease causes nausea, vomiting, nystagmus, head tilt, stumbling, and falling to the side. Fortunately, in many cases, clinical signs improve over time, and though some patients may retain mild symptoms there is typically no lasting damage. Treatment includes medications to manage clinical signs and instructions to keep your dog comfortable and safe until symptoms subside.  
  • Seizures — A pet’s seizure can be scary. Affected dogs will often fall on their side and convulse, and may also salivate, vomit, urinate, or defecate. Seizures in dogs can occur for a variety of reasons, including:
    • Toxin exposure
    • Brain trauma
    • Low blood sugar
    • Low blood-calcium levels
    • Brain tumors
    • Brain infection
    • Idiopathic epilepsy

If your dog has a seizure, he should be examined immediately. Although most seizures last for a short time, if a seizure lasts longer than five minutes, or your pet has several seizures in a short period of time (24 hours), rush your pet to the nearest veterinary hospital immediately for medical treatment.

  • Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) — When a cartilage disc between two vertebrae pushes up into the spinal canal, the delicate spinal cord is compressed. Mild spinal cord compression can cause inflammation and pain, whereas severe compression can cause complete paralysis and lack of pain perception, most often to the back legs. Breeds with short legs and a long torso, such as dachshunds, are more likely to develop disc disease. IVDD can develop suddenly and cause acute pain or paralysis, sometimes after a quick, jarring movement such as jumping off furniture, or it can develop slowly as a disc progressively degenerates. If your dog cannot move his legs or you think he may be paralyzed, take him immediately to an emergency veterinary hospital equipped with advanced imaging equipment, such as AVES. Time is an important factor in these cases for a positive long-term prognosis, so immediate treatment is critical.
  • Cerebral edema — Brain swelling, or cerebral edema, occurs most commonly following a head trauma, such as a dog who is hit by a car or falls from a high surface. The bony skull has little extra inside room, so brain swelling can compress important structures, such as the brain stem. Cerebral edema can cause pupillary abnormalities, loss of consciousness, or death. If your dog has suffered an event that may have caused head trauma, take him to a veterinarian immediately, whether or not he is currently exhibiting clinical signs. 
Neurologic Disease Diagnosis in Dogs

Neurologic disease diagnosis starts with an exam to systematically evaluate the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves in an attempt to localize the problem to a specific part of the nervous system. Many neurologic disorders require more advanced tests, such as computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), for diagnosis. The neurology department at AVES houses both a CT and MRI unit and can definitively diagnose a wide range of neurologic diseases. 

Diagnosing Neurological Diseases

A CT scan combines a series of X-rays to generate multiple cross-sectional images that are reconstructed to provide a detailed image. CT scans are particularly useful for evaluation of soft-tissue structures that cannot be seen on traditional X-rays. An MRI unit uses a large magnet and radio waves to visualize soft-tissue structures, such as the brain and spinal cord, in high-resolution, multi-plane images. An MRI is considered the standard of care for nervous system imaging and is required for accurate diagnosis of many conditions. 

Neurologic Disease Treatment in Dogs

Your family veterinarian can treat many neurologic diseases, but more complicated conditions often require specialist treatment. AVES is fortunate to have a board-certified veterinary neurologist, Dr. Tracy Sutton, on staff, and she can work alongside your primary veterinarian to develop an individualized treatment plan for your pet’s neurologic condition. Should your dog require neurosurgery, Dr. Sutton is experienced in performing delicate surgical procedures to treat spinal cord compression and other problems.


Has your family veterinarian recommended that your dog be seen by a veterinary neurologist?  Contact AVES to schedule an appointment.