Meningitis in dogs is an inflammatory disease that attacks the canine central nervous system. Most people associate it with infection; in animals, though, the story is more complicated.
Yes, meningitis occurs as a result of infection (and not just bacterial but also viral, fungal, Rickettsial and parasitic), but some dogs develop a sterile meningitis. This happens most commonly in large breeds under the age of 2 years old and is thought to be a result of autoimmune disease (the immune system attacking itself), which in turn may have a genetic component.
Treatment for meningitis includes immunosuppressive doses of steroids plus antibiotics and supportive care. The outcome depends a lot on the type of meningitis and how quickly therapy is started, with the outlook varying from complete recovery to death.
Depending on how bad the inflammation is and which part of the brain is affected, your dog may show varying symptoms.
Typical signs include neck pain — affected animals hold their neck rigid, often with a lowered head, and have trouble turning left and right. They may also arch their backs and stand in a braced position because of a stiff spine. In the early stages of meningitis, the symptoms can mimic the signs of back pain due to a slipped disc.
As the inflammation gets worse, many dogs develop fever and neurological symptoms that can include dullness and stupor, or the dog may become uncoordinated or unable to walk.
Another common sign is nystagmus, when the eyes track from side to side, as if watching a tennis match. But also know that nystagmus may also be vertical (up and down). As with any illness, if you notice any weird or abnormal behaviors in your dog, always ask your veterinarian about them.
In our canine companions, anything that causes inflammation of the central nervous system may cause meningitis. These culprits may be:
Some forms of meningitis may even have a genetic link, such as pug meningoencephalitis and those associated with large breeds.
Modern imaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging, are important when diagnosing meningitis.
A scan confirms the problem of brain inflammation (and not a slipped disc) and rules out a brain tumor (another cause of altered mental status). Analyzing samples of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) also helps the clinician find the cause of inflammation.
Watch this Bernese pup show meningitis symptoms after her diagnosis:
High doses of steroids, or a combination of steroids with other anti-inflammatory drugs, can be an effective treatment for meningitis.
This is because one of the most common causes of this condition is autoimmune disease, where the body attacks its own tissue. Immunosuppressive doses of steroid switch off this reaction and help lessen the inflammation.
Antibiotics are essential in cases of bacterial infection. Giving a dog antibiotics while he’s receiving high doses of steroid is a good idea. Why? Because these patients have a suppressed immune system and may pick up secondary infections more easily.
Many animals suffering from meningitis cannot walk or feed themselves, and so intravenous fluids and first-class nursing care are an important part of turning them around.
Unfortunately, there is no known prevention for meningitis in dogs. Contact your veterinarian if you see abnormal signs or behaviors in your dog.
- “Encephalitis, Myelitis and Meningitis.” Nelson & Couto. Small Animal Internal Medicine. Publisher: Mosby. 1010–1015.
- “Canine meningitis.” Meric. 1988. J Vet Intern Med, 2(1): 26.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Oct. 13, 2018.