Meningitis: How Dogs Are Different From People

An underlying autoimmune disease may be the cause of meningitis in some dogs.

The Beagle breed has a tendency to develop meningitis. By: RogerMayhem

What do chocolate, xylitol (an artificial sweetener) and raisins have in common?

These are all examples of foods that are safe for people to eat, but they are toxic to dogs. These 3 foods all highlight how your pet’s body works differently from how yours works.

I was reminded of another example only this week by Izzy, a terrier undergoing treatment for meningitis. Izzy had come in for her 6th cycle of chemotherapy drugs, which were helping suppress her immune system that was working overtime and attacking her own brain. The resulted in a “sterile meningitis,” which is to say a meningitis not caused by a bacteria or virus.

Meningitis

In People

Meningitis refers to an inflammation of the membranes (meninges) around the brain.

Meningitis in people is considered infectious because it’s caused by catching a bacteria or virus. But not everyone who comes into contact with a meningitis bug will become ill; instead, some may become healthy carriers and a source of infection for others.

Happily, there are highly effective vaccines available against the most common strains that offer protection to those at greatest risk.

In Dogs

In dogs, infectious meningitis is rare, and it’s uncommon for a dog to suffer from bacterial or viral meningitis. But — and it’s a big “but” — this doesn’t mean dogs don’t get meningitis. They do; it’s just the causes aren’t usually infectious.

Causes of Canine Meningitis

Meningitis in dogs is most commonly caused by inflammation and swelling rather than an infection. Think of this as being similar to the difference between sneezing due to an allergy and sneezing caused by flu.

Digging deeper, the question becomes, “Why causes the dog’s brain to become inflamed?”

This can be down to:

  • An autoimmune condition: Where the body’s immune system attacks its own tissue, including the brain and structures linked to the brain. Other examples of autoimmune conditions include rheumatoid arthritis and hemolytic anemia.
  • Breed-related: Many dog breeds have a genetic tendency toward meningitis, such as:
  • Idiopathic: The word “idiopathic” is really a smokescreen we hide behind when, after investigation, no underlying cause is found.
A stiff neck is a symptom of canine meningitis. By: marvays

Symptoms

Meningitis symptoms in dogs tend to “wax and wane.” In other words, the symptoms come and go over a few hours, days or sometimes even weeks.

Often the first sign is stiffness, with the dog walking like a living rocking horse, losing their appetite and crying in pain when their collar is put on. Neck pain is a classic sign in dogs, just as in people, but with the added complication that a slipped disc will look similar. Thus the vet will need to run tests to check out what’s causing the neck pain.

However, unlike people, dogs with meningitis don’t run a rash. That’s because that characteristic red rash in people is down to septicemia secondary to infection. Dogs generally don’t suffer from bacterial meningitis (plus they wear a fur onesie), so you can’t rely on a rash as a clue.

Long story short: If your dog is acting oddly and especially if they has a stiff neck, it’s best to get them checked by a vet.

Diagnosis

The short answer is that a vet may have a hunch pretty soon after seeing the dog, but tests are required to confirm that suspicion. The stiff neck and rigid stance put meningitis right up there, but reaching a definitive diagnosis may require referral to a specialist.

This is because the tests are often quite specialized, such as analyzing a sample of cerebrospinal fluid or running an MRI scan of the brain. But if the signs are strongly suggestive, how important is reaching a definitive diagnosis?

Very important! This is because the signs are nonspecific and can be caused by other issues needing different treatment such as:

  • Slipped disc
  • Anatomical defects (such as SME in Cavaliers)
  • Head trauma
  • Brain tumors
  • High blood pressure

It’s also important to rule out an infection, since the treatment is high doses of drugs that suppress the immune system and could stop the body fighting infection.

Despite a little muscle stiffness, this Dachshund looks to be doing quite well after a meningitis diagnosis:

Treatment

Treatment aims to settle the inflammation and switch off the inappropriate immune response. This means high doses of steroids often in combination with other immunosuppressive drugs.

The dog requires treatment for weeks, and only once they improve can the doses be slowly dropped down after 6 weeks. In many cases, the dog needs to stay on a maintenance dose of medication to prevent a relapse.

Indeed, this was the reason for Izzy’s visit. Because she was responding so well, she was being monitored ahead of a planned dose reduction.

Side Effects of Treatment

Unfortunately, high doses of steroids are associated with side effects such as:

Which again means the vet wants to be certain of the diagnosis before committing the patient to long-term treatment.

So yes, dogs do get meningitis, but the causes differ from those that affect people. Like the effects of chocolate, xylitol or raisins on a dog, meningitis is another example of how different the canine body is to ours. This is why the wise human takes an ailing dog to a vet instead of trying to cure them at home.

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This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Nov. 17, 2017.

Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS

View posts by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS
Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, is a veterinarian with nearly 30 years of experience in companion animal practice. Dr. Elliott earned her Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery from the University of Glasgow. She was also designated a Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Married with 2 grown-up kids, Dr. Elliott has a naughty puggle called Poggle, 3 cats and a bearded dragon.

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