Warning Signs of Neurological Disorders in Canines

Warning Signs of Neurological Disorders in Canines

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Like every pet owner, I confess I am sometimes guilty of not reading signs of ill health well enough. I lost my Jack Russell to cancer and had a heart-stopping experience with my dog Misty that made me realize how important it is to know what’s going on with my dog’s health to prevent the heartache of losing yet another pet.
In this case, I’m speaking specifically of neurological disorders, the signs of which are often ignored as finicky or frivolous. This is often the case with neurological disorders in humans as well.
I want to share my experience from what happened with Misty so others can read the signs before it is too late. This article is to help you recognize symptoms of what might be neurological problems in your dog so you can take it to the vet and have it diagnosed.

What Happened To My Dog

My pet schnauzer Misty had just had an infected womb removed when she went to the bathroom and began shaking her head uncontrollably.
When it happened, the trembling sent waves of panic through me because it reminded me of an episode I’d gone through myself. My husband and I rushed her to the vet immediately.
She had experienced a seizure, a quaking, trembling and shaking that can be traumatic to witness. She was hospitalized and awaited further diagnosis. Her head continued to shake, though she was eating and drinking well.
The sad part of the whole episode was that I should have read the signs of the disorders much earlier, even more so because I have been the victim of brain tumors and seizures myself.
Everything in the amazing phenomenon of life begins with the brain. I hope that sharing this information with you will provide hope for a happier, healthier man’s best friend!

Signs of Neurological Disorder

The difficulty with neurological disorders is that some of their symptoms can also be the signs of other problems your pet may be having.
Difficulty in walking, for example, can be because of pain in other areas of the body and head shaking can be because of mites in the ears. If any of these symptoms are observed, however, address them immediately.

Stumbling or Lack of Balance

Any dog with a neurological disorder will experience difficulties in coordinating movements. This could be caused by any combination of factors, such as the onset of diseases like Parkinson’s disease (yes, it affects dogs too), chemical imbalances in the brain, an infection, or a brain tumor.
Other symptoms of imbalance can include:

  • Head tilt
  • Nausea
  • Falling or rolling
  • Tremors
  • Eyeballs that shake
  • Lack of coordination
  • High-stepping

Misty had several episodes of not being able to walk, falling on all fours every time she got up. I had to carry her to be weighed at the vets, where she again tumbled over in a vain attempt to stand. She finally managed to stand, and my husband and I heaved huge sighs of relief, at least for that minute!

Head Shaking

No, the dog is not plugged in to its earphones. The head shaking is another sign of a neurological problem, perhaps one that is more severe.
A dog does shake its head occasionally to get rid of excess water in its ears or when its head is wet. When it shakes its head to and fro without stopping, however, or without apparent cause, raise the alarm immediately.
That is exactly what happened to Misty when she experienced seizures. It took time for the head shaking to stop.

Persistent Trembling

It is not just the head that will shake uncontrollably. The rest of the muscles in the dog’s body might experience a few tremors.
It was certainly what happened in Misty’s case. That, together with a little whining, tells you to make an immediate visit to the veterinary emergency room.

Dragging Paws Suddenly

If your dog suddenly enjoys dragging its feet instead of walking, go see the vet. This is not a simple canine misdemeanor. This sudden deterioration of motor skills is another neurological boo boo. It is a symptom of limb paresis, paralysis, or weakness.
Paresis is the reduced ability of an animal to move a limb, and paralysis is the complete inablity to move a limb. Though difficulty moving can also be the result of physical symptoms, in some cases it can indicate trouble between the brain and the rest of the body.
Other symptoms include:

  • Knuckling
  • Abnormal gait
  • Difficulty moving or paralysis of one limb, both limbs, or all four legs

It was certainly disconcerting to witness Misty stumble and drag her paws as the veterinary clinician tried to weigh her.

Eyes Flickering

Your dog’s eyes may flicker if it has an inherent neurological problem, leaving it looking rather spaced out. It may not be able to focus properly on its surroundings, and it may not be able to recognize you temporarily either.
Misty’s eyes were turned in two directions and flashing and it was quite a traumatic sight. Thankfully, that episode is over!

Vision Problems

If your dog is suddenly having vision problems like blindness or walking into objects, it’s possible that there is an underlying neurological problem.

Staring at Blank Walls

I remember asking this question once because I saw Misty doing so from time to time. I had originally thought, as did the vet, that it was due to the pain she was already experiencing as a result of an infected womb.
I now know that improper brain function and disorientation is the cause of her staring without reason at the walls around her.

Continual Tail Chasing

All dogs love chasing their tails. When it does so too often, it is not just play—it is time to take it to the vet. Your dog’s frustration because of the pain makes it turn around in circles. It is lack of focus and another sign of a neurological disorder.
Being a schnauzer, Misty has no tail to chase since it was docked as a puppy before being sold to us. Should tail spinning become obsessive, do consult a veterinarian at once.


Chances are you that you know what a seizure is. If you see your dog experiencing one of these, make sure they’re safe and won’t hit anything and let the seizure pass. If you can, take a video of it to show to the veterinarian since it might help them diagnose your pooch.

  • Sudden or violent shaking
  • Paddling
  • Vocalization
  • Dilation of pupils
  • Dog is unresponsive or staring
  • Dog loses consciousness
  • Salivation or drooling
  • Stiffness
  • Twitching
  • Involuntary urination or defecation


Pain can be caused by many things, some of them neurological issues.
Common signs of pain (this is not all-inclusive):

  • Crying out
  • Holding a limb up
  • Low head carriage

If your dog is experiencing pain from normal sensations or touches, like putting on a collar, that’s also a warning sign.

Lack of Appetite

Persistent nausea is yet another sign of a malfunction within the brain. Misty had bouts of nausea before her seizure. There are many causes of nausea, so if you observe this together with other symptoms, do not wait too long before taking your pet for a medical examination.
Misty’s symptoms remind me of some that I had when I suffered from brain tumors. I may not have spun around to try to catch a tail, but I did have inexplicable difficulty walking. What are these neuro gremlins that surf the brain.
Dogs and humans can mirror each other where certain conditions and illnesses are concerned.

Other Signs

Here are some other symptoms that might indicate neurological trouble with your pooch:

  • Difficulty swallowing or chewing
  • Decreased facial movement
  • Voice changes
  • Muscle atrophy of the head
  • Collapsing
  • Hearing loss
  • Behavioral changes (like confusion, pacing, and wandering)
  • Inability to open the mouth
  • Dropped jaw

Some Neurological Disorders in Pets

Note: This is not a comprehensive list. Only a veterinarian can diagnose your pet.

Myasthenia Gravis

There are a host of neuromuscular diseases a pet may be suffering from, but one of the most common is Acquired Myasthenia Gravis, a disorder that interrupts communication between the nerves and muscles.
The body’s immune system turns on itself, attacking junctions where neurons and muscles interconnect. Once this happens, the adjacent muscles cannot be controlled.
A dog may experience muscle weakness in the muscles affecting the eyes, facial expressions and esophagus. He may become fatigued easily.

Cerebellar Atriophy

This is a deterioration of the cerebellum or the brain that causes premature aging. The cerebellum is also the part of the brain that controls movement.
While the cerebellum functions normally through puppyhood, specific cells known as the Purkinje cells will deteriorate after birth. Occasionally, other cells in the brain are affected as well.
Your pet may appear haggard and not be able to walk properly.

Inherited Polyneuropathy

This is an umbrella term covering a group of disorders that affect the nerves. These disorders strike multiple nerves in the body and they can be in any combination.
Myeline, a fatty liquid that acts as an insulator coat, is lost through a process called demylineation. Electric signals in the nerves are lost, impeding function, and causing a lack of orientation and improper motor coordination. The degeneration of myeline can result in spatial nerve disorders (inability to negotiate space), sensory nerve disorders (weakness or paralysis) and a malfunctioning thyroid gland.
Do note that if your pet is being medicated for cancer, inherited polyneuropathy may be a side effect of the medication.


This is an inherited condition that manifests itself in constant seizures. It has varied causes and is common in many dogs.

Parkinson’s Disease

This condition is found in dogs as much as it is in humans. Parkinsons is caused by a loss of a neurotransmitter, dopamine, in nerve cells. Symptoms include tremors, stiff muscles or movement, and difficulty with balancing and walking.
The difference between Parkinson’s in dogs and humans is that it is a disease that affects mainly the elderly in humans, while in dogs, it is the exact opposite, mainly striking young dogs or pups.

Degenerative Myelopathy

This is a common neurological disease that affects the spinal cords in adult dogs. Typically, the dog will lose function of its rear legs and, eventually, will be paralyzed.

If you believe your dog is experiencing symptoms of a neurological disorder contact Oregon Veterinary Specialty Hospital immediately.

Oregon Veterinary Specialty Hospital (OVSH) has been serving the Portland and Beaverton area community since 1979. Drs. Steven F. Skinner (Neurology, Neurosurgery) and Robert T. Franklin (Internal medicine.) We welcome referrals from veterinarians all over the Pacific Northwest. Our goal is to help your pet regain health and live a long and happy life.

Oregon Veterinary Specialty Hospital

9339 SW Beaverton Hillsdale Hwy,
Beaverton, OR 97005.
Phone: 503.292.3001
Fax: 503.292.6808
Email: [email protected]