Pet Health: An animal’s neurological problems are not all in your head

Colorado State University

By Dr. Stephanie McGrath

Veterinary neurologists treat nervous-system problems of all shapes and sizes, from Chihuahuas with back pain to Saint Bernards with seizures. The nervous system comprises the brain, spinal cord, muscles and the nerves that connect them. Just as in humans, neurological problems in animals can be caused by a reaction to medication, hereditary disorders, infection or trauma.

Changes in behavior

How do you know if your pet has a neurological condition? Keep an eye out for telltale changes in behavior such as:

  • Not recognizing you
  • Forgetting training or failing to obey
  • Lethargy
  • Aggressiveness
  • Irritability

Physical changes

Owners Dave and Stacy Bunte (and their other dog Rosie) pick up sheepdog Oliver Bunte at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, July 2, 2015
Stacy Bunte, with her dog Rosie, foreground, pick up sheepdog Oliver after he was assessed for neurological problems at the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Above, Dr. Stephanie McGrath reviews Oliver’s MRI results.

Physical signs that might indicate a neurological problem include:

  • Weakness
  • Back and neck pain
  • Running in circles or pacing
  • Head-pressing against hard surfaces
  • Balance problems
  • Seizures and tremors
  • Problems swallowing
  • Deafness
  • Vision problems

Common neurologic conditions

Commonly treated neurologic conditions include:

  • Seizure disorders (epilepsy)
  • Brain and spinal tumors
  • Meningitis and encephalitis
  • Congenital disorders
  • Disk herniation and disease
  • Traumatic injuries

If you are concerned that your favorite furry friend has a problem, your general-practice veterinarian can perform a neurological exam. Depending on the diagnosis, he or she might refer you to a specialty practice, such as the neurology department at the Colorado State University James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

What to expect at a neurological exam

Dr. Stephanie McGrath, Assistant Professor of Clinical Sciences, gives sheepdog Oliver Bunte an MRI at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, July 2, 2015
Dr. McGrath prepares Oliver for a diagnostic scan using magnetic resonance imaging.

The exam itself is gentle and non-invasive. The neurologist will take a detailed history – asking questions about your pet’s health, behavior and any problems you have noticed. He or she will observe your pet’s gait, mobility and coordination. The doctor will test various responses; this involves lightly touching the animal’s face, testing vision, observing awareness and testing limb reflexes. (To view an innovative approach to teaching veterinary students how to perform neurological evaluations, click here.)

Many neurological conditions may be diagnosed through non-invasive testing at your veterinary clinic. If the condition persists or the doctor thinks a consultation would help your pet, a specialist will use a variety of high-tech methods to look further. Most procedures require anesthesia so the animal is completely still during the exam.

The neurologists at CSU have top-notch diagnostic equipment at their fingertips. The in-house magnetic resonance imaging scanner has recently been updated with a state-of-the-art software system, making it one of the most advanced in the state. An MRI allows doctors to see the soft tissues of the brain, spinal cord, joints and tendons.

Colorado State’s new positron emission tomography/computerized tomography (PET/CT) offers a unique look at metabolic changes in the nervous system, helping to diagnose a variety of challenging disease processes. This procedure involves the injection of a small amount of a radioactive tracer which is detected by the scanner.

Dr. McGrath examines a dog, Oliver, with help from a veterinary student
Dr. McGrath examines Oliver, with help from veterinary student Aryana Ayazi.

Using these leading-edge technologies, the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital offers minimally invasive brain biopsies, integrating MR and/or CT images with a neuro-navigation system to guide needle biopsies.

Additionally, a newly installed electrophysiology unit has made the diagnosis of nerve and muscular diseases possible. CSU neurologists use this valuable information to help guide further tests and treatments to help your circling Schnauzer catch some zzz’s.

Treatment options

Tumors, herniated disks and traumatic injuries are often treated with surgery, but many neurological conditions also respond to medications – antibiotics, immunosuppressive drugs, anti-seizure medication, and chemotherapy. A number of research studies are being conducted at CSU, focusing mainly on brain tumors, encephalitis and spinal disorders.

Dr. Stephanie McGrath is an associate professor of neurology at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. She is interested in treating seizure disorders and inflammatory brain diseases, as well as a variety of spinal cord disorders.

James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital