Merck Manual

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Pet Owner Version

Nervous System Disorders and Effects of Injuries in Dogs


Thomas Schubert

, DVM, DACVIM, DABVP, Small Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Florida

Reviewed/Revised Feb 2018 | Modified Oct 2022

A change in an animal’s ability to sense its environment can be caused by disease in either the central nervous system or the peripheral nervous system. The primary signs of nervous system disorders include behavioral changes, seizures, tremors, pain, numbness, lack of coordination, and weakness or paralysis of one or more legs. The effects of an injury on sensory and motor functions depend on its location and severity.

A spinal cord injury can cause loss of feeling and paralysis below the level of the injury. Mild spinal cord injuries can result in clumsy movement and mild weakness of the limbs. Moderate spinal cord injuries can cause a greater weakness of the limbs. In severe spinal cord injuries, a complete loss of movement (paralysis) and feeling can occur. However, not all spinal cord injuries cause paralysis. For example, injury to the spinal cord in the lower back can result not in limb paralysis but in loss of bladder control.

Brain injuries result in different effects, again depending on which part of the brain is affected. Injuries to the brain stem can cause a loss of balance, weakness of the limbs, hyperactive reflexes, stupor, or coma. Injuries to the cerebellum can result in a lack of coordination of the head and legs, tremors, and a loss of balance. Injuries to the cerebrum can cause complete or partial blindness, loss of the sense of smell, seizures, coma, stupor, pacing or circling behavior, and inability to recognize an owner.

Some injuries to the nervous system can cause damage that is not evident until 24 to 48 hours after the injury occurs. Longterm damage is usually caused by swelling or internal bleeding of the vessels in the brain. Strokes caused by clogged arteries or high blood pressure are rare in pets.

Mechanisms of Disease

In addition to the effects of injuries, nervous system disorders can include birth defects, inherited disorders, infections and inflammations, poisoning, metabolic disorders, nutritional deficiencies, degenerative diseases, cancer, or unknown causes.

Most birth defects, often called congenital disorders, are obvious at birth or shortly after. Some genetic diseases cause the neurons to degenerate slowly and irreversibly in the first year of life. In other inherited diseases, such as epilepsy, the animal may not show any signs for 2 to 3 years.

Infections of the nervous system are caused by specific viruses or microorganisms. Other inflammations, such as certain types of meningitis, can be caused by the body’s own overactive immune system. These are known as autoimmune disorders. Various chemicals can cause a toxic reaction in the nervous system. These include certain pesticides and herbicides, rat poisons, antifreeze, chocolate, and sedatives. High doses of certain types of medication can also be toxic to the nervous system. Botulism, tetanus, and tick bites, as well as coral and tiger snake venom, can also affect the nervous system and cause paralysis.

Some metabolic disorders affect the function of the nervous system, including low blood sugar, shortness or loss of breath, liver disease, and kidney failure. Thyroid and adrenal gland abnormalities and electrolyte imbalances can also cause neurologic signs. A lack of thiamine (vitamin B1) in the diet can cause a loss of motor control, stupor, seizures, and coma in dogs. Inadequate amounts of B6 can cause seizures.

Tumors of the Nervous System

Tumors of the nervous system are classified by the cell type affected, the behavior of the tumor, the pattern of growth, and any secondary changes seen in and around the tumor. Tumors may grow from cells within or associated with the nervous system, they can form in surrounding tissues, or they can spread to the nervous system from another tumor in the body.

Brain tumors are occasionally found in young animals, but most are found in mature and older animals. In dogs, the brain is the more common site of primary tumors of the nervous system than the spinal cord ( see Tumors Tumors Disorders of the spinal column and cord include congenital defects (discussed above), degenerative diseases, inflammatory and infectious diseases, tumors, nutritional diseases, injury and trauma... read more ) or peripheral nerves ( see Tumors Tumors Peripheral nerves are the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. The neuromuscular junction is the connection between the end of a motor nerve and a muscle. Diseases of the peripheral... read more ). Adult dogs of several brachycephalic breeds—Boxers, English Bulldogs, and Boston Terriers—are often reported as having the highest incidence of brain tumors among domestic animals. (Brachycephalic dog breeds are those that have characteristically flattened faces and short noses.) Golden retrievers may be more likely to have brain tumors.

A variety of tests are used to confirm the presence of a brain tumor. Plain x-rays, myelography, scintigraphy, computed tomography scans, and magnetic resonance imaging are all used to diagnose nervous system tumors. Cerebrospinal fluid analysis may also be useful.

The outlook for animals with nervous system tumors is generally guarded to poor, and depends on the location, extent of tissue damage, access by surgery, and rate of tumor growth. Recent improvements in treatment have centered on surgical removal, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy ( See also Cancer Treatment Cancer Treatment Your veterinarian has several options for treating pets with neoplasia. There are 3 common treatment options for animal cancer and tumor: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy (also called... read more ).

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