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Meningitis in Dogs

Meningitis in dogs
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Severity: i High
Life stage: All
  • Meningitis is an uncommon illness in dogs, but a serious one.
  • There are two types—infectious meningitis and non-infectious meningitis.
  • It typically occurs when the immune system is compromised and the infection spreads. 
  • Prognosis will depend on the underlying cause and the response to treatment.
  • Up-to-date vaccinations and broad-spectrum parasite protection can help prevent meningitis.

Meningitis is an uncommon illness in dogs, but nevertheless an important one to understand. While any dog can develop meningitis as a result of an infection or autoimmune disease, some breeds are predisposed to this condition.  

Learning the symptoms of meningitis in dogs and its associated risks can help ensure that your dog receives prompt treatment if this dangerous condition develops.

What is Meningitis in Dogs?

The meninges are thin membranes of connective tissue that cover the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis in dogs occurs when these membranes become inflamed. In some cases, the brain may also experience inflammation and this condition is called meningoencephalitis. 

The inflammation of the meninges causes severe pain and may even lead to neurologic abnormalities.  

Types of Dog Meningitis

Some types of meningitis in dogs are contagious, while others may be autoimmune. 

The types of meningitis in dogs can be loosely grouped into two categories: infectious meningitis and non-infectious meningitis.

Infectious Meningitis

Infectious meningitis may be caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, or parasites.  These infections typically begin elsewhere in the body and then travel through the bloodstream to the brain and spinal cord.  

Infectious meningitis is rare in dogs, particularly in adults, and may result from a dysfunction of the immune system which allows the infection to spread to the central nervous system. 

Non-Infectious Meningitis

Most cases of meningitis in dogs have no identifiable infectious cause. These cases are often suspected to be a result of an autoimmune issue or they may be idiopathic, meaning that an underlying cause cannot be determined. 

The three most common types of non-infectious meningitis in dogs are:

  • Granulomatous Meningoencephalitis (GME)
  • Steroid-Responsive Meningitis-Arteritis (SRMA)
  • Necrotizing Meningoencephalitis (NME)

GME and NME are most common in young to middle-aged small breed dogs such as Chihuahuas, Pugs, and Maltese. SRMA occurs primarily in medium and large breed dogs, and usually onsets before two years of age.  

Symptoms of Meningitis in Dogs

Dog showing symptoms of meningitis

Signs of meningitis in dogs may occur suddenly or may have a more gradual onset. If you suspect your dog may be showing symptoms of meningitis, it is important to seek veterinary care immediately. 

Symptoms of meningitis in dogs include:

  • Severe pain, especially in the neck
  • Stiff neck
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Muscle twitching
  • Weakness
  • Stumbling, loss of balance
  • Abnormal gait
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hunched posture
  • Depression
  • Seizures
  • Behavior changes

How Do Dogs Get Meningitis?

There are many possible causes of meningitis in dogs. In some cases, meningitis may be idiopathic, which means veterinarians are unable to diagnose the cause of the inflammation.

Causes of Infectious Meningitis in Dogs

Infectious meningitis is rare in animals and typically occurs when the immune system is compromised, allowing the infection to spread to the brain and spinal cord.  

Infectious meningitis in dogs can be caused as a result of viral, parasitic, or fungal infections including:

  • Tick-borne diseases 
  • Canine distemper virus (viral, contagious respiratory illness)
  • Toxoplasmosis (parasitic infection caused by Toxoplasma gondii)
  • Neosporosis (parasitic infection caused by Neospora caninum)
  • Cryptococcus (fungal infection that affects the respiratory tract)
  • Blastomycosis (yeastlike fungal infection)
  • Histoplasmosis (fungal infection that affects the respiratory tract)

Young puppies, elderly dogs, and those with other conditions affecting the immune system may be at greater risk of developing infectious meningitis. 

Unvaccinated dogs are at risk for meningitis secondary to contagious diseases such as canine distemper virus. Meningitis can also develop secondary to sepsis, which may occur as a result of severe contagious diseases such as canine parvovirus.

Causes of Non-Infectious Meningitis in Dogs

Non-infectious meningitis is much more common than infectious meningitis in dogs.  These types of canine meningitis are primarily thought to be autoimmune in origin.  

Dogs likely have some genetic predisposition to developing non-infectious meningitis. Dog breeds at risk for developing meningitis vary depending on the type of disease, and include:

Breeds at risk for developing Granulomatous Meningoencephalitis (GME):

  • Chihuahua
  • Dachshund
  • Maltese
  • Miniature Poodle
  • West Highland White Terrier

Breeds at risk for developing Steroid-Responsive Meningitis-Arteritis (SRMA):

  • Beagle
  • Bernese Mountain Dog
  • Boxer
  • German Shorthair Pointer
  • Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
  • Irish Wolfhound
  • Pembroke Welsh Corgi

Breeds at risk for developing Necrotizing Meningoencephalitis (NME):

  • Pug
  • Maltese
  • Yorkshire Terrier
  • Chihuahua
  • French Bulldog
  • Papillon
  • Pekingese

Diagnosing Your Dog with Meningitis

Veterinarian treating a dog with meningitis

Diagnosing canine meningitis can be challenging and expensive. Several diagnostic tests will be necessary, and your dog may need to be referred to a specialist for further care.  

If your veterinarian suspects your dog may have meningitis, the following tests may be recommended:

Physical Examination. Your veterinarian will perform a full physical examination on your dog, including palpation of the neck and spine to look for areas of pain and stiffness. If your dog is showing neurologic abnormalities like a loss of balance or an uncoordinated gait, your veterinarian may perform additional neurologic evaluations to look for the underlying cause of these signs.

Blood Work. Your veterinarian may recommend blood work, such as a complete blood count and biochemistry panel, to identify possible causes of your dog’s meningitis and to look for other conditions that can cause similar symptoms.

CSF Tap. Your veterinarian may recommend taking a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Analyzing the cells in this fluid can confirm the diagnosis of meningitis and may help identify the cause of this condition. Your dog will need to be placed under general anesthesia for this procedure.

Diagnostic Imaging.  Advanced imaging like MRI or CT scans may be used to evaluate your pet’s brain and spinal cord, which can help rule out other conditions that cause similar symptoms. Your pet will likely need to be placed under general anesthesia for this procedure.

How to Treat Meningitis in Dogs

The treatment for meningitis in dogs varies depending on the underlying cause of the inflammation. 

After performing diagnostic tests to identify any infectious or non-infectious causes of meningitis, your veterinarian may prescribe some of the following treatments:

Antimicrobial and Anti-Parasitic Medications. Cases of infectious meningitis may be treated with antibiotics, antifungals, or anti-parasitic medications depending on the type of infectious agent responsible for the disease.

Steroids. In cases of autoimmune meningitis or SRMA, high doses of steroids such as prednisone may be prescribed to suppress the immune response and reduce inflammation. 

Analgesics. Meningitis is often a painful condition, so your dog may be prescribed analgesic medications such as opioids to manage pain and improve quality of life.

Mannitol. In some cases of meningitis, inflammation causes fluid buildup within the skull cavity, which compresses the brain tissue and leads to neurologic signs such as seizures. Mannitol is a diuretic used to draw fluid out of the tissues to reduce intracranial pressure.

Supportive Care.  Hospitalization and supportive care such as intravenous fluid therapy and nutritional supplementation may be recommended while your dog is treated for meningitis.

Prognosis for Dogs With Meningitis

Your dog’s ability to recover from meningitis will depend on the underlying cause and the response to treatment. However, in most cases of meningitis in dogs, the prognosis is guarded. 

Dogs with SRMA have a slightly better prognosis, and many can recover with appropriate treatment.

Cost to Diagnose and Treat Meningitis in Dogs

Meningitis is a costly condition to diagnose and treat. Advanced diagnostics are required to identify the underlying cause so that your dog can be appropriately treated. Hospitalization for several days or even weeks may be necessary, and referral to a specialist may be recommended as well.  

Pet owners should expect to spend several thousand dollars to treat meningitis in dogs.

How to Prevent Meningitis in Dogs

Vet vaccinating a dog to prevent meningitis

Infectious meningitis can be prevented by maintaining routine veterinary care. Keeping your dog’s vaccinations and broad-spectrum parasite prevention up-to-date will reduce your dog’s risk of contracting diseases like canine distemper, which can result in meningitis. 

Routine veterinary wellness visits are also important to catch potential problems early and ensure that your dog remains healthy.

Non-infectious causes of meningitis are generally not preventable, since autoimmune conditions may be hereditary.

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