Meningitis In Dogs: Symptoms, Causes, And Treatments

Veterinarians examining small dog in clinic examination room

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Meningitis in dogs is a neurological disease that results in inflammation of the protective membranes that surround the central nervous system called the meninges. Symptoms can be severe if it goes untreated, and meningitis may cause serious conditions in dogs, including neurological problems like seizures and paralysis. In some cases, it can be fatal. Meningitis may also cause a secondary inflammation in the brain or spine. Meningoencephalitis is a similar condition that affects the brain and the meninges, while meningomyelitis is a condition that affects the spinal cord and the meninges. These can sometimes have different causes, but present similar symptoms to meningitis in dogs. If you notice the symptoms of meningitis in your dog, it is important that you see a veterinarian right away. Here is what you should know about the symptoms, causes, and treatments for meningitis in canines.

Symptoms Of Meningitis In Dogs

Border Terrier dog lying with chin on cushion, looking guilty, Norfolk UK

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The symptoms of meningitis in dogs may vary in type and intensity depending on how far the inflammation has progressed and which parts of the central nervous system are affected. Initial symptoms may include the following.

  • Neck or back pain or stiffness in the spine, noticeable by your dog holding their neck or back rigid
  • Muscle spasms in the back, neck, or forelegs
  • Eyes tracking from side to side or up and down
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Weakness
  • Head tilting
  • Unsteadiness while walking
  • Depression
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Low blood pressure

Serious symptoms that tend to occur if the disease has progressed include the following.

  • Blindness
  • Dullness or stupor
  • Severe unsteadiness or loss of muscle control
  • Seizures
  • Paralysis
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Abnormal levels of aggression or agitation

It is important to see a veterinarian right away if you notice these symptoms. The earlier treatment begins, the more effective it will be and the better the chances of recovery are for your dog.

Causes Of Meningitis In Dogs

A veterinarian checks a dog in Bain-de-Bretagne, western France, on July 16, 2014. AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

(Picture Credit: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

The most common cause of meningitis in dogs is a bacterial infection that originates somewhere in the body and migrates to the central nervous system. This causes inflammation of the protective meninges that results in meningitis. The cause need not be bacterial, however. Infections from viruses, parasites, or fungi can cause infections in the central nervous system that lead to meningitis. Here are a few infections that may result in meningitis.

  • Ear, eye, sinus, or nasal infection
  • Infection from an injury
  • Rabies
  • Distemper
  • Lyme disease
  • Vertebral disk infections
  • Bone infections in the spinal area
  • Rickettsia

The disease may also result from exposure to toxins or from auto-immune disease. Dogs with weakened immune systems, like puppies, are more at risk. It may also have a genetic component, as certain breeds are more predisposed to the condition. These include Beagles, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Maltese, and Pugs. In other cases, the cause can simply not be identified at all.

Treatments For Meningitis In Dogs

Labrador puppy being checked over by a vet. Checking eyes

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Goals of treatment for meningitis in dogs include suppressing the inflammation, encouraging recovery from neurological conditions brought on by the disease, relieving pain, and controlling seizures. Treatment can vary depending on the cause of the inflammation.

Most of the time treatment will usually begin with administration of steroids to suppress the immune system response that causes inflammation. These are most often given orally and reduce swelling around the brain. Steroids are especially important when the cause of meningitis is an autoimmune disease where the dog’s immune system attacks the body’s own tissue.

In cases of infection, a veterinarian may use antibiotics, sometimes intravenously to increase their effectiveness. Antibiotics are also helpful in preventing secondary infection, which a dog is more susceptible to when they are being treated with steroids that suppress the immune system. This type of treatment can be long-term.

Antiepileptic drugs may be used to reduce seizures, and intravenous fluid might be given to dogs who are unable to feed or drink for themselves. Pain medication may be given to dogs to improve comfort. Bed rest and nursing care are important during the time of recovery, which can take four weeks or more.

The likelihood of recovery can vary depending on the cause of the meningitis and how far it has progressed. For infections that have reached the central nervous system, the prognosis is not favorable. Sadly, many dogs die from these types of infections. Dogs’ responses to treatment, however, can vary greatly, and early and aggressive medical intervention always improves the odds of recovery.