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.
Symptoms of Meningitis in Dogs
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).
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 have all that fur), so you can’t rely on a rash as a clue.
Long story short: If your dog is acting oddly and especially if they have a stiff neck, it’s best to get them checked by a vet.
Causes of Meningitis in Dogs
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, we find that the question becomes, “What 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:
- Beagles (as part of Beagle pain syndrome)
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
- Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers
- German Shorthaired Pointers
- Idiopathic: The word “idiopathic” is really a smokescreen we hide behind when, after investigation, no underlying cause is found.
Your 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?
Actually, it’s 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.
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:
Treating Meningitis in Dogs
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.
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.
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, so intravenous fluids and first-class nursing care are an important part of turning them around.
Side Effects of Treatment
Unfortunately, high doses of steroids are associated with side effects such as:
- Excessive thirst
- Constant hunger
- Urinary leakage
- Weight gain
- Thin skin
Which again means the vet will want to be certain of the diagnosis before committing the patient to long-term treatment.
Preventing Meningitis in Dogs
Unfortunately, there is no known prevention for meningitis in dogs. Contact your vet 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 Dec. 11, 2018.