Symptoms of Neurological Disorders in Dogs

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. Updated: September 2, 2018
Symptoms of Neurological Disorders in Dogs

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The body's nervous system is incredibly complex. Carrying signals from the brain to the rest of the body to control function and activity, even the slightest alteration can result in significant impairment. Dogs are no different. They are susceptible to certain neurological disorders and will display certain signs and symptoms when there is something amiss.

Detecting any neurological issues as soon as possible is imperative. In this way we can take them to the vet to be appropriately diagnosed and a treatment plan can be enacted. At AnimalWised we show you the major symptoms of neurological disorders in dogs. By looking a these 7 signs, you can see if your dog is exhibiting them to know when you need to take action.

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1. Weakness or paralysis of the extremities

Paralysis in the extremities is one possible sign of a neurological disorder in dogs, particularly with older canines. Extremities means their limbs and appendages, i.e. a dog's legs, paws and tail. Along with weakness in these areas, the dog may also experience pain in one or more limb. If so, this is usually the sign of a degenerative problem due to chronic wear and tear of the joints. However, it can also be a neurological issue which can lead to either paresis (weakness in voluntary movement) or plegia (paralysis of voluntary movement).

If this partial weakness affects the hind legs, it is known as paraparesis and tetraparesis (or sometimes quadriparesis) if affecting all four limbs. You may not have heard of these conditions, but there are in the same family as paraplegia (the complete loss of motor function in the lower body) with which you may be more familiar.

This partial or total loss of movement can be caused by an advanced state of degenerative joint disease in which the compression of the spinal cord occurs. Also other variables such as infections, trauma, herniated discs or age can be factors. This is why it is essential for an accurate diagnosis in order to find the root cause. Only then can appropriate treatment can be implemented. The wrong treatment could even make the situation worse.

If your dog shows signs of intermittent lameness, weakness of the front or hind quarters, lack of desire to move, experiences pain when their hip is touched, shakes in their knee joints or, worst of all, when they cannot stand up, it is important to see a vet so they can carry out the appropriate tests.

Most likely they will perform a complete scan (both physical and neurological) with imaging tests such as x-rays and CT/MRI scans. However, further laboratory tests such as spinal tap may also need to be undertaken.

Symptoms of Neurological Disorders in Dogs - 1. Weakness or paralysis of the extremities

2. Seizures

There are two main types of seizures in dogs:

  • Partial: changes in motor function may occur such as a tremor in the head, contraction of limbs, involuntary jaw movement, etc. They may or may not be accompanied by alterations in behavior such as ‘fly snapping’ (chasing imaginary flies), barking for no reason, chasing their tail, showing uncommon aggression, etc. Partial seizures can become more widespread.
  • Generalized: in this type of seizure motor function impairment also occurs, but to a greater extent. Limb contractions become more acute, can become stiff in the neck, opening of the mouth, pedalling their legs and even vegetation. They may urinate or defecate involuntarily, salivate excessively and even lose consciousness.

Before and/or after the seizure, the animal may become restless, aggressive or engage in compulsive licking.

If your dog has a generalized seizure which lasts more than 2 minutes or increases in frequency and severity, we need to urgently take them to a vet. You may find that they do not recover to their normal state after a bad seizure.

When you take them to the vet, they will be able to run the appropriate tests for a diagnosis. With seizures, many people will rightly consider the possibility of epilepsy, but vascular problems, metabolic alterations, toxic shock or trauma are also possible reasons.

3. Alterations to their gait

Perceiving alterations in the way the dog walks can be a sign the dog is suffering from a neurological condition. Abnormalities in their way of walking can manifest themselves as:

  • Ataxia or incoordination: this is a type of change to a dog's gait which means their limbs lose their coordination. They may lean to the side, deviate at random or even appear to drag some of their limbs across the ground as they try to walk. This type of alteration could be due to injuries in different areas of the nervous system and it is important to find the location of the problem to help treat it.
  • Moving in circles: this is usually associated with other symptoms and may be cause by multiple injuries throughout the nervous system. Dogs might walk or run in circles during play or going to bed. This is why it is important you distinguish between normal and abnormal movements. You can tell when it is abnormal as the dog will not seem to have control over their movement and does it continuously.
Symptoms of Neurological Disorders in Dogs - 3. Alterations to their gait

4. Altered mental state

In cases were there is an alteration in the Central Nervous System (i.e. the brain and brain stem), it is common for the animal's mental state to also change. We may see them faltering, barely interacting with their environment or pressing their head against the wall or furniture. There are many different manifestations of an altered mental state.

In general, a healthy animal will be alert (able to respond well to stimuli in its environment). If they have a neurological problem, their state of mind may be depressed (drowsy when awake, alternating between periods of inactivity with brief periods of activity), stuporous (awake but appearing asleep and only responding to nociceptive [painful] stimuli) or comatose (alive, but unconscious and unresponsive to any stimuli). These symptoms may be accompanied by other behavioral changes.

5. Cocked head

head cocking may be accompanied by other symptoms such as strabismus (crossing of the eyes), pathological nystagmus (involuntary and repetitive shaking of the eyes in horizontal, vertical or circular movements), moving in circles, hearing loss or imbalance. It is often associated with an injury to the inner ear known as canine vestibular syndrome. If your dog is of advanced age and/or has sever otitis and you notice they tilt or cock their heads, you need to go to the vet to asses their condition and make a diagnosis.

6. Generalized tremors

If your dog exhibits tremors for non-physiological reasons (e.g. it is very cold), it should alert us to something being wrong. If it presents with other symptoms mentioned in this article, you should go to the vet. However, the problem may not necessarily be physical as there might be emotional or mental concerns.

Symptoms of Neurological Disorders in Dogs - 6. Generalized tremors

7. Alteration of the senses

In addition to the aforementioned signs of neurological disorders in dogs, changes to their senses may occur. These may include:

  • Smell: the dog shows no interest in something unless they hear or see it. If they do not track when out and about, cannot detect when we are holding treats they can't see or if there is a strong smell near them which they seem to ignore completely, there may be a problem with their olfactory nerve. If we place a smell next to them they normally would hate, such as vinegar, then it is likely they have a problem with their smell.
  • Vision: there are different nerves involved with sight. If we suddenly detect our animal seems unable to see properly the vet will need to do a complete neurological and ophthalmological exam. If your dog can't see, you will notice them bump into things, not pay attention to you, not meet your gaze, etc.
  • Hearing: especially with age, dogs will lose the acuity of their hearing due to wear of the ear's structures. However, it can also be a sign of neurological problems. They will often be accompanied by balance problems as the sense of hearing and coordination are related.
  • Difficulty to swallow: can also be accompanied by sialorrhea (hypersalivtion) or facial asymmetry.
  • Touch: an animal with a neurological disorder at the spinal level can lose sensitivity when it comes to touch, in addition to having problems with motor function. They may also be extra-sensitive to our touch or wince in pain at something which would otherwise normally be well tolerated. Equally, they may lose their sense of touch and not respond to stimuli at all.

What should I do if I think my dog has neurological problems?

We have mentioned it throughout this article, but we say it again to emphasize its importance. If you think your dog has a neurological condition, go see a vet. Only they will be able to perform the right tests to achieve the right diagnosis.

Symptoms of Neurological Disorders in Dogs - What should I do if I think my dog has neurological problems?

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to Symptoms of Neurological Disorders in Dogs, we recommend you visit our Prevention category.

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Sharon Wilson-Dopirak
My 8 year old dog, as a puppy seemed to be fine even though he was a little wobbly. As he aged his ability to get around became more difficult. Now he is unable to walk or stand but has movement in his legs. If you touch his spinnal area he will shake and he stretches his head up and slightly to the right. I lave looked up everything and it looks as if he had distemper before we got him. He nolonger barks but will whin if he needs to have a bowel movement or to go pee. He also will whin loudly if he needs to go outside to potty. Any thoughts?
Administrador AnimalWised
Hi Sharon,

The symptoms you describe could be due to a number of different pathologies, including congenital issues, parasites, neurological disorders or infections. You will need to take them to a veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment.
Will it get worse from here? How much longer does my dog have? Will she always be in pain?
Administrador AnimalWised

We are sorry, these are questions only a vet can answer and, even then, there are so many dependent variables.
Recently, my dog (13 year old Boston) would lose control of his left leg and balance. I would comfort him for awhile, talking to him and petting him. He would attempt to walk around, gingerly at first then he would seem to normalize. He did it again today and fell down the stairs! It took some time to calm him down this time but seemed to snap out of it. We attempted to let him go outside to do his business and he is either blind or has dementia. This has all happened within a week. He's has ALWAYS been a very active dog and loves to chase his ball but not today. He's old so maybe old age is catching up to him?
Administrador AnimalWised

Unfortunately, age will affect all dogs lucky enough to have a long life. The best we can do is manage the symptoms and ensure they have as comfortable a life as possible. However, you will also need to take the dog to a vet to determine the underlying problem as different issues need different courses of action.
I figured it out through investigation.
The symptoms he experienced recently is canine vestibular-disease.
I took him to the vet and they did blood work and found nothing.
Its idiopathic from what I can tell but to be sure the vet says I would have take him in for a CT scan.
Shirley Captain
Our Pit\ Lab" Jake" had arthritic pains stiffness this winter,and now few minutes of an episode of leg weakness and incoordination of legs, like Bambi on ice. We took him to vet ,basic blood tests normal, and put on Phenobarbital every 12 hours for a month. Now 2 days later he drowsy otherwise normal Opinion and advice please.
My 10 (?) yo Golden/Lab has laryngeal paralysis and in Nov. had the tie-down (tie-back) surgery. He's doing well. I was told his condition is neurological. progressive and degenerative. Are there additional treatments that can forestall further deterioration?
Lori James
I rescued a dog and he may have neurological issues. In the beginning he would cock his head a little bit snd go into a trance like state looking up as he paced around the room, he seemed to be very anxious. Now when he goes outside he thinks he smells something and he starts digging. He paces in a pattern and does not respond to any commands. He appears driven and will totally wear himself out. Panting and limping he will not stop until I physically hook his leash on him and make him come in the house. He acts like he can not stop. I even trien pouring water on him to snap him out of it, he looked at me but he obviously wanted to continue his behavior. He will continue this until I Stop him. He paced in circles at the animal shelter even with 150mg. Of trazadone. He gets a lost look in his eyes during these times. According to the Animal shelter physical trauma is suspected. My vet referred me to UC Davis because he said his pupils did not constrict to light at the same speed.
I can not afford to go to UC Davis. The animal Shelter claimed he had severe kennel stress and were going to euthanize him.
Administrador AnimalWised
Hi Lori,

This sounds like a tough case, especially as it is difficult to know his exact history. It is possible he has neurological issues, but we understand it might be difficult to find the money to go to UC Davis. Could you try to arrange a fundraiser? You could perhaps speak to your local animal shelter and see if there is a way you could get sponsored?

Alternatively, you could try to speak to a dog behaviorist or trainer who will be able to help you with some of the practical problems. They will be cheaper and can teach you some basic tips to help you keep the dog under control.

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