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Are There Veterinary Neurologists? When Should I See One? (Vet Answer)


May 17, 2023
guinea pig in the hands of a veterinarian in a blue uniform with a phonendoscope around her neck


guinea pig in the hands of a veterinarian in a blue uniform with a phonendoscope around her neck
Dr. Iulia Mihai Photo

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Veterinary neurology is a field of veterinary medicine that deals with the diagnosis and treatment of nervous system disorders in animals. A veterinary neurologist is a veterinarian specializing in neurology.

The nervous system in animals is divided into central, peripheral, and autonomic. The central nervous system (CNS) includes the brain, brain stem, and marrow. The peripheral nervous system includes the peripheral nerves that come from the brain or spinal cord; it controls digestion, movements, posture, and reflexes. The autonomic nervous system originates from the CNS and includes another set of nerves that control involuntary movements of organs like the intestines, heart, blood vessels, urinary bladder, etc. If you notice behavioral changes in your pet, especially if they are sudden or extreme, you must take them to a vet neurologist.

In this article, you will learn the main objectives of neurological examinations in pets, the most common neurological conditions in dogs and cats, and the neurological problems that can cause behavioral changes in pets.


What Are the Main Objectives of Neurological Examinations in Pets?

Usually, neurological cases are often difficult for the average veterinary clinician, so referral to a neurological specialist is essential to establish a correct diagnosis. Here are the main objectives of the neurological examination of pets:

  • Confirming or denying the existence of a neurological problem
  • Locating a lesion in your pet’s nervous system
  • Estimating the severity of a condition and its extent
  • Determining the causes of a condition
  • Establishing a differential diagnosis
  • Establishing a treatment

What Are the Most Common Neurological Conditions in Dogs and Cats?

Here are the most common neurological conditions in dogs and cats.

1. Epilepsy

Epilepsy is the most common neurological condition found in dogs. In pets, epilepsy manifests as sudden, repetitive, uncontrolled seizures with or without loss of consciousness. The causes of epilepsy are varied and include:

  • Unknown causes (idiopathic epilepsy)
  • Hereditary
  • Cranial trauma
  • Intoxication
  • Parasites

2. Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD)

Intervertebral disc pathologies are among the most common diseases of the spinal cord in pets, especially dogs. Clinical signs of IVDD include:

  • Prone to keeping the head down
  • Arched back
  • Tremor
  • Rigid limbs
  • Muscle spas
  • Crying when handled
  • Pain
  • Paralysis

Breeds such as Bulldogs, Shih Tzu, Basset Hounds, Dachshunds, and Pekingese are more prone to this condition.

vet and bird examination Vet Bird
Image Credit: danilobiancalana, Shutterstock

3. Encephalitis

Encephalitis is a neurological pathology characterized by inflammation of the brain tissue. It is common in small toy breeds, terriers, and Poodles. In cats, encephalitis is one of the most common neurological diseases. The clinical signs of this condition are represented by:

  • Dromomania (exaggerated desire to wander)
  • Hitting the surrounding objects
  • Walking in a circle
  • Tendency to get stuck in corners
  • Depression
  • Disorientation

4. Spinal or Brain Trauma

border collie visiting a vet
Image Credit: Kamil Macniak. Shutterstock

Spine and brain injuries in dogs and cats can be caused by:

  • Car accidents
  • Direct hits
  • Falls from a height
  • Fighting

Trauma can lead to:

  • Disc herniation
  • Fractures of the spine and skull
  • Dislocations of the spine
  • Contusions of the spine and skull

Spinal and cranial traumas represent medical emergencies, with varied clinical signs corresponding to the affected segment. The clinical signs can include:

  • Paresis
  • Paralysis
  • Convulsive attacks
  • Alteration of the state of consciousness
  • Wobbly walking, etc.

5. Meningitis

Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Clinical signs of meningitis in pets include:

  • Generalized pain
  • Fever
  • Neck stiffness

Meningitis can be infectious—caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, or protozoa—or non-infectious—caused by an immune-mediated inflammatory response (when the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues).

6. Peripheral Nerve Diseases (Peripheral Neuropathy)

Veterinarian buries therapeutic drops in the cat's eyes
Image Credit: Oleg Kovalevichh, Shutterstock

Peripheral neuropathy refers to neurological conditions that affect the peripheral nervous system. The causes are varied and include:

  • Ingestion of toxins (e.g., insecticides)
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Cancer
  • Arthritis
  • Vitamin B12 and E deficiency
  • Degenerative diseases(e.g., dancing Doberman disease, distal polyneuropathy of Rottweilers, acquired laryngeal paralysis)
  • Inflammatory diseases (e.g., acquired myasthenia gravis)
  • Injury or trauma

Clinical signs depend on the underlying disease and may include:

  • Tremor
  • Muscular atrophy
  • Weakness
  • Abnormal posture
  • Lameness
  • Weight gain
  • Increased thirst
  • Incoordination

What Neurological Problems Can Cause Behavioral Changes in Your Dog?

Any neurological pathology that creates a feeling of malaise in your pet has the potential to cause a change in their behavior. However, when discussing the behavior of a dog or cat, habits and energy levels must be taken into consideration. Certain neurological disorders like encephalitis, brain tumors, Chiari malformation or syringohydromyelia, and stroke can cause behavioral changes, for example. You understand your pet best and will know whether a behavior of theirs is unusual or not.

Finding the cause, an accurate diagnosis, optimal treatment, and proper care are essential to your pet’s recovery.

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To diagnose and treat neurological diseases in dogs and cats, it is recommended to take them to a veterinary neurologist. Most neurological disorders are difficult to diagnose by general practitioners. Common neurological diseases in dogs and cats include intervertebral disc disease, spinal and cranial trauma, epilepsy, encephalitis, and meningitis. Take your pet to the vet if they change their behavior or exhibit certain clinical signs that may indicate a neurological disease.

Featured Image Credit: Garna Zarina, Shutterstock

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