Hydrocephalus In Dogs: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatments

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Hydrocephalus is a condition where cerebrospinal fluid builds up in a dog’s skull, putting pressure on the brain. It is sometimes referred to as “water on the brain.” Hydrocephalus is a serious condition that can result in permanent brain damage or death. It is often congenital, meaning it is present at birth, and certain breeds are predisposed to the condition, especially small dog breeds. Mild cases are sometimes treatable with medication, but puppies born with the condition are often euthanized because surgery is expensive. If you see the signs of hydrocephalus in a dog or puppy, consult your veterinarian immediately. Here is what you should know about the symptoms, causes, and treatments for hydrocephalus in dogs.

Symptoms Of Hydrocephalus In Dogs

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Some dogs show no symptoms at all of hydrocephalus, though if it goes untreated and fluid continues to build in the skull, it is likely that signs of pain and other symptoms will appear. Sometimes a puppy’s head will appear enlarged because the skull hasn’t fused yet. If you see these signs or any of the following symptoms of hydrocephalus in your dog or puppy, consult your veterinarian immediately.

  • Domed skull
  • Wide set eyes
  • Accidents in the house or inability to be housebroken
  • Difficulty learning
  • Difficulty eating
  • Erratic or restless behavior
  • Disorientation
  • Lethargy and excessive tiredness
  • Dementia
  • Loss of coordination
  • Compulsive circling
  • Head pressing
  • Blindness
  • Seizures
  • Crossed eyes
  • Irregular breathing
  • Unusual posture or gait
  • Kicking out front legs while walking
  • Slow growth
  • Coma

Causes Of Hydrocephalus In Dogs

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There are different causes of hydrocephalus in dogs depending on whether the condition is congenital or acquired later in life. Congenital hydrocephalus is present at birth and is often the result of genetics. Certain breeds, especially small breeds, are predisposed to the condition, including Boston Terriers, Cairn Terriers, Chihuahuas, English Bulldogs, Lhasa Apsos, Maltese, Pekingese, Pugs, Pomeranians, Toy Poodles, Yorkshire Terriers, and Shih Tzus. Congenital hydrocephalus may also result from a brain hemorrhage in a newborn after difficult labor, exposure to certain drugs during pregnancy, or prenatal infection.

Acquired hydrocephalus may result from a Vitamin A deficiency, parainfluenza virus, intracranial inflammatory disease, swelling in the brain, or other infection. The most common cause of acquired hydrocephalus in dogs is a brain tumor.

Treatments For Hydrocephalus In Dogs

(AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND OUT) Veterinary surgeon David Lidbetter checks Barney the collie who has just had a brain tumor removed, 6 May 2005. SMH Picture by KATE GERAGHTY (Photo by Fairfax Media/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

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If hydrocephalus in dogs is mild and caught in the early stages, it may be treated with medication. The goal is to reduce the inflammation or the amount of cerebrospinal fluid being produced. Usually, corticosteroids are prescribed for this purpose. Sometimes anti-seizure drugs and other medications will be prescribed to treat the symptoms of hydrocephalus, too.

In some cases, surgery is the best option for treatment of hydrocephalus in dogs. The procedure involves placing a shunt that redirects cerebrospinal fluid away from the brain and into the abdominal cavity where it can be easily reabsorbed by the body. This surgery requires a brain surgeon and is usually expensive, so many dogs never receive it and are euthanized, instead.

Cases of acquired hydrocephalus are often treated by focusing on the underlying causes, which may be treated with medication, surgery, or radiation and chemotherapy in cases of tumors. Your veterinarian will determine the best course of action. It is important to see your veterinarian at the first signs of hydrocephalus. When treatment begins early, it can prevent brain damage, and dogs can mostly make a full recovery.