9 Common Neurological Health Problems in Dogs [+Signs, Causes & Prevention]

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vet checking border collies neurologicals status


Neurological problems in dogs are conditions that affect the brain or spinal cord. They may arise from genetic predispositions or be the result of injury or infection. 

Common neurological problems in dogs include:

  • Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)
  • Epilepsy/seizures
  • Vestibular disease
  • Wobbler syndrome
  • Degenerative myelopathy
  • Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
  • Cerebellar Hypoplasia
  • Meningitis
  • Encephalitis

In this article, I’ll list common neurological problems you might encounter in your dog and help you understand the signs, preventative measures, and treatments for each condition. Then, I’ll share in which part of the life cycle each problem tends to occur. Finally, I’ll list common symptoms of neurological trouble in dogs and give you some healthcare tips for your pooch.

Common Neurological Problems

Neurological issues in dogs can be life-threatening or negatively impact their quality of life. Knowing how to recognize common problems in your dog can help you seek treatment immediately. 

Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)

Intervertebral discs are gelatinous cushions between the vertebrae in the spine. When the discs degenerate, they bulge out of place and press against the spinal nerves, causing intervertebral disc disease (IVDD).

IVDD usually occurs in dogs around 6-10 years old unless there’s another underlying condition.

Signs of IVDD in dogs include:

  • Back pain
  • Hind limb weakness
  • Limping or dragging back feet
  • Loss of coordination
  • Resistance to jumping on furniture/climbing stairs
  • Difficulty urinating or defecating
  • Incontinence
  • Paralysis

IVDD occurs either when a dog has a genetic condition causing abnormal cartilage development(chondrodysplasia) or when normal wear and tear causes degeneration in the cartilage surrounding the disc. Dog breeds such as Dachshunds, Shih Tzus, Basset Hounds, and Beagles are predisposed to developing IVDD because they have shorter legs and longer backs. 

Leaving IVDD untreated can cause the disc to place more pressure on the spinal cord, resulting in increasing levels of pain and eventual paralysis.

If you choose a breed with a predisposition to chondrodysplasia, your first line of prevention involves selecting a puppy from a reputable breeder. Other preventative measures for the disease include weight management, using ramps or stairs for your dog to get in the car or on furniture, and discouraging jarring activities.

Medical management for mild cases of IVDD includes cage rest, anti-inflammatory drugs, and painkillers. When IVDD is severe, surgical removal of the herniated discs is the treatment of choice.


Dogs with epilepsy are prone to suffering seizures or bursts of abnormal electrical activity in the brain.

Epilepsy usually surfaces in puppies or young adult dogs between 6 months and five years old.

Signs of epilepsy include:

  • Whining 
  • Loss of bladder/bowel control
  • Paddling of the limbs
  • Muscle twitches/tremors
  • Chomping/tongue-chewing
  • Drooling/foaming at the mouth
  • Fainting/collapsing

There are various potential causes of epilepsy, including genetic predisposition, toxins, pesticides, trauma, cancer, encephalitis, and metabolic disease. Some breeds that have a higher incidence of the disease include Beagles, Dachshunds, German Shepherds, Keeshonds, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Poodles, and Irish Setters.

Contact your veterinarian the first time your dog has a seizure to determine if there’s an identifiable cause. Without appropriate control, seizures can grow more severe over time and eventually become life-threatening.

Prevention of epilepsy includes choosing breeds or familial lines that don’t have a history of epilepsy. During a seizure, you can prevent injury to your dog by gently sliding him away from furniture or open stairs(stay away from his head and mouth).  

Treatment of epilepsy in dogs includes identifying and treating underlying causes or prescribing anti-seizure medications to manage the disease if there’s no identifiable cause.

Vestibular disease

 Vestibular disease affects the nerves around the inner ear that control balance and coordination. Usually, this disease affects senior dogs.

Signs of vestibular disease include:

  • Incoordination/difficulty standing
  • Nausea
  • Head tilt
  • Nystagmus
  • Circling in one direction

Potential causes of vestibular disease include ear infections, overzealous ear cleaning, drug reactions, trauma, tumors, and stroke.

Vestibular disease usually resolves over time. However, leaving it untreated can cause your dog discomfort and a reduced quality of life.

To prevent vestibular disease, use care when cleaning your dog’s ears. Work from the outside in and don’t go too deep.

Veterinarians manage vestibular disease symptoms with motion sickness or anti-nausea drugs. If underlying conditions exist, treatment may include antibiotics or anti-inflammatory drugs.

Wobbler syndrome

Wobbler syndrome in dogs is a combination of vertebral and soft tissue abnormalities in the neck that cause compression of the cervical spinal cord.

This condition usually affects adult dogs, but the age of onset varies by breed. Large-breed dogs develop wobbler syndrome as middle-aged or older dogs, while giant breeds usually manifest the disease around 3 years of age.

Signs of wobbler syndrome include:

  • Walking with head down
  • Neck pain/stiffness
  • Wobbly gait, initially in hind legs
  • Short strides when walking
  • Dragging feet

The cause of wobbler disease is unknown, but there appears to be a genetic component. Large and giant-breed dogs, including Dobermans, Great Danes, Rottweilers, Mastiffs, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Weimaraners, and Swiss Mountain Dogs, are predisposed to developing the condition.

There is no known way to prevent wobbler syndrome. 

Medical management for wobbler disease includes anti-inflammatory medications, restricted activity, and using a chest harness rather than a neck leash to walk your dog. If the condition is severe or unresponsive to medical management, surgery can help to relieve pressure on the spinal cord.

Degenerative myelopathy (DM)

Degenerative myelopathy(DM) involves a slow degeneration of the white matter sheath surrounding the spinal cord. This myelin sheath is important for nerve impulse conduction.

Because DM is a degenerative disease, it usually develops in older dogs with an average age of 9 years.

Common signs of DM in dogs include:

  • Ataxia
  • Hind limb weakness
  • Dragging paws/scuffing toenails
  • Abnormal paw placement/knuckling
  • Crossing hind limbs
  • Inability to stand
  • Hind limb paralysis
  • Fecal and urinary incontinence

The causes of DM are uncertain, but there is a genetic component that predisposes dogs to develop the disease. Commonly affected breeds include German Shepherds, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Boxers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, and Rhodesian Ridgebacks.

There’s no cure for DM, and it will continue to progress in affected dogs. However, medical management can help extend and improve your dog’s quality of life.

There is no known way to prevent DM in dogs. However, you can screen puppies for the defective gene mutation to find out if they are more predisposed to developing the disease.

Medical management of DM involves physical therapy to maintain muscle mass and aid your dog’s mobility at home by using non-slip rugs, body slings, dog wheelchairs, and pet ramps.

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) resembles Alzheimer’s in humans and is a gradual decline of your dog’s cognitive functions due to age-related brain changes.

As a slowly degenerative condition, CCD is usually seen in senior dogs.

Signs of CCD include:

  • Disorientation/confusion
  • Getting stuck in corners or going around objects
  • Change in sleep habits
  •  Night pacing/vocalization
  • Behavioral changes
  • Anorexia
  • Memory loss – forgetting former training
  • Soiling in the house

CCD is caused by a build-up of a protein called beta-amyloid in the brain of some dogs as they age. The protein is toxic to neurons and leads to malfunctioning or wasting away of the cells. As a result, the brain cannot process information properly.

There is no cure for CCD, but failing to treat the condition leads to a more rapid progression and a decrease in your dog’s quality of life.

You may not be able to prevent CCD, but there are ways to manage the condition to slow down its progression and improve your dog’s quality of life. Supportive care includes specialized diets, anti-anxiety medications, providing mental enrichment/stimulation for your dog, and supplementation with omega fatty acids, vitamin B, and melatonin.

The drug Anipryl is approved to treat CCD in dogs.

Cerebellar Hypoplasia

Dogs with cerebellar hypoplasia are born with an underdeveloped or immature cerebellum. 

Symptoms are usually noticeable around 6 weeks of age as puppies become more active and 


Signs of cerebellar hypoplasia include:

  •  Ataxia
  • Nystagmus
  • Broad-based stance
  • Limb tremors
  • Intention tremors at the end of an action
  • High-stepping/stilted gait

Potential causes of cerebellar hypoplasia in dogs include in-utero infections with herpes virus, environmental toxins, poor gestational nutrition, and genetics. More commonly affected breeds include Chow Chows, Airedales, Irish Setters, and Boston Terriers.

There are no known treatments or cure for cerebellar hypoplasia. Fortunately, the condition is not likely to get worse with time, and many dogs live full lives.

Prevention of cerebellar hypoplasia involves selecting puppies with no family history of the condition. 

Although there’s no treatment for cerebellar hypoplasia, you can take steps at home to help your dog. You can use non-slip rugs or mats and support your furbaby with a sling or wheelchair when he’s walking.


Meningitis is inflammation of the protective membrane, known as the meninges, that surrounds the central nervous system.

Meningitis can affect dogs at any age.

Symptoms of meningitis in dogs include:

  • Fever
  • Neck pain/sensitivity to touch
  • Holding neck rigid
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Unsteady gait
  • Head tilt
  • Seizures
  • paralysis

Bacterial infections are usually the cause of meningitis, but the condition can also be caused by viruses, fungi, or protozoan parasites.

If you don’t seek treatment for meningitis in your dog, the condition can be life-threatening.

To prevent meningitis in your dog, focus on basic preventative health care. Schedule annual exams and keep up-to-date on vaccinations and anti-parasite preventatives.

The treatment for meningitis varies depending on the underlying cause but may include antibiotics for bacterial or protozoal infections, prednisone for steroid-responsive cases, and IV fluids.


Similar to meningitis, encephalitis is inflammation of the brain tissues. Dogs can suffer from meningitis at any stage of life.

Signs of encephalitis include:

  • Seizures
  • Blindness
  • Depression
  • Behavioral changes
  • Circling
  • Head tilt
  • Facial paralysis

Encephalitis in dogs is usually triggered by infections from bacteria, viruses, protozoan parasites, or fungi. It can also be idiopathic or have no identifiable cause.

Without treatment for encephalitis, brain inflammation can cause seizures, coma, and death.

Prevention of encephalitis is similar to that of meningitis. Schedule routine checkups and keep your dog current on vaccinations and preventative medications for fleas and ticks.

Treatment for encephalitis usually starts with broad-spectrum antibiotics but may include anti-seizure medications, low-dose steroids, and antifungal medications if indicated.

Neurological Health Problems across the lifecycle

Depending on the condition, dogs can experience neurological health problems at any point in their lifecycle. In the first weeks and months, puppies may exhibit signs of cerebellar hypoplasia while seniors can develop CCD.

Neurological Health Problems in Puppies

Neurological health problems that can affect puppies have genetic links or are present from birth. Epilepsy is a condition that has a genetic link and may affect dogs as young as 6 months of age. In the case of cerebellar hypoplasia, puppies are born with an underdeveloped cerebellum and manifest symptoms as early as 6 weeks of age.

Neurological Health Problems in Adult Dogs

Some of the neurological health problems that affect adults have a genetic component, while others arise from external causes. Meningitis or encephalitis is caused by infections or other external factors and can affect adult dogs.

Although dogs with wobbler syndrome are born with structural abnormalities, the symptoms of the disease usually manifest during adulthood. Intervertebral disc disease also tends to surface during a dog’s middle years.

Neurological Health Problems in Senior Dogs

With senior dogs, neurological health problems are often related to degenerative changes. Degenerative myelopathy and CCD usually surface in senior dogs. Vestibular disease also tends to occur in senior dogs, although it’s not a degenerative condition.

Signs of Neurological Problems Dog Parents Should Beware of

Neurological issues in dogs can be life-threatening or impact your dog’s quality of life if they’re left untreated. Knowing common signs can help you identify potential problems and seek appropriate care.

  • Back pain
  • Hind limb weakness
  • Limping or dragging back feet
  • Loss of bladder/bowel control
  • Paddling of the limbs
  • Chomping/tongue-chewing
  • Incoordination/difficulty standing
  • Head tilt
  • Nystagmus
  • Walking with head down
  • Neck pain/stiffness
  • Short, wobbly strides when walking
  • Dragging paws/scuffing toenails
  • Abnormal paw placement/knuckling
  • Crossing hind limbs
  • Disorientation/confusion
  • Getting stuck in corners or going around objects
  • Night pacing/vocalization
  • Broad-based stance
  • Limb tremors
  • Intention tremors at the end of an action
  • Fever
  • Neck pain/sensitivity to touch
  • Holding neck rigid
  • Blindness
  • Circling
  • Loss of appetite
  • depression

Common causes of Neurological problems

The causes of neurological problems in dogs vary depending on the condition, but there are commonalities. Common causes include:

  • Genetic or breed predisposition
  • Trauma
  • Infection
  • Toxin
  • Degenerative change
  • Tumor
  • Nutritional deficiency 

Neurological Health Care Tips and Problem Prevention

Here are some tips that may help prevent neurological problems and take the best possible care of your dog.

  • Work with a reputable breeder to select a puppy with no familial history of problems
  • Make sure pregnant bitches have a diet that’s nutritionally balanced for gestation
  • Schedule regular exams for your dog and keep up to date on vaccines and preventative care
  • Supplement your dog’s diet with omega fatty acids, Vitamin B, melatonin, and other substances that support brain health
  • Walk your dog with a chest harness to avoid trauma to the neck area
  • Use walking slings or dog wheelchairs if needed
  • Furnish your home with non-slip mugs
  • provide ramps or stairs to prevent jumping on furniture or into/out of the car

The Final Woof

Conditions that affect the brain or spinal cord can be debilitating for dogs. Different issues affect canines at various stages of their life cycles. Knowing how to recognize common problems can help you get timely treatment for your furbaby. Additionally, you may be able to prevent some problems and improve your special pal’s quality of life by following some basic healthcare practices.

Photo of author
Dr. Libby Guise earned her DVM from the University of Minnesota in 1994. After working in private practice in Wisconsin for two years, she joined the USDA as a Veterinary Medical Officer. In 2011, Libby came home to focus on raising and teaching her adoptive daughter. She lives in Wisconsin with her daughter, husband, and two furbabies: Charis, a lab-mix rescue pup, and Chesed, a Springer Spaniel.

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