The central nervous system (or CNS) is one of the most important parts of your dog’s body. It’s like the control room for their body and mind, which is why any illness that affects the CNS is so scary. Meningitis is a rare but serious condition that affects your dog’s central nervous system, which includes their brain and their spinal cord. It causes severe pain, stiffness, and it can even progress into debilitating symptoms like seizures, blindness, and paralysis.
We humans can suffer from meningitis and even if you’re not sure what it does, you likely know it’s serious. So much so that babies and young adults are vaccinated against it. Meningitis in dogs is just as serious and sadly it can be fatal for your furry friend. So what can you do to protect your pooch from this illness, and what can be done to treat meningitis in dogs?
Meningitis is an inflammation of the protective membranes that surround your dog’s nervous system, which is made up of their brain and spinal cord. These membranes are called “meninges”, while “itis” means an inflammatory disease, hence the name, meningitis.
It’s a very serious neurological condition that can cause severe conditions such as blindness and paralysis and in some cases, it can prove fatal.
There are other serious conditions that can cause similar symptoms to meningitis. These conditions include:
Encephalitis: Inflammation of a dog’s brain.
Meningoencephalitis: Inflammation of both the brain and the meninges.
There are a few categories used to describe meningitis in dogs. One is non-infectious, which means the pup’s meningitis was caused by something other than infection, like an auto-immune response.
Meanwhile, infectious meningitis has been caused by some form of infection whether that’s bacterial, fungal, viral, or otherwise. Meningitis caused by infection is uncommon here in the UK thanks to the widespread use of vaccination in pets to protect against disease.
Otherwise, there is one specific type of meningitis called “steroid-responsive meningitis” (SRMA,) which is a non-infectious form of meningitis.
Steroid-responsive meningitis is a form of meningitis characterised by inflammation of the meninges and blood vessels in the central nervous system. However, steroid-responsive meningitis can be identified because it has been caused by an inappropriate auto-immune response where the dog’s immune system has attacked the tissues of their central nervous system. The exact cause is unknown, but it’s believed to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
SRMA is the most common form of meningitis diagnosed in dogs and it usually affects young animals between 6 and 18 months old. However, older dogs can still develop SRMA, it’s just less common.
There are several potential causes of meningitis in dogs, including infection, exposure to chemicals and toxins, an auto-immune response, genetic predisposition, or it can be spontaneous (referred to as idiopathic).
Meningitis in dogs is most often caused by an infection in the body travelling to the central nervous system and causing inflammation. This infection could be bacterial, viral, fungal, or protozoan. A parasitic infestation can also cause infection in the body which spreads to the nervous system and causes meningitis. Some parasites, like roundworm, can actually travel to the central nervous system, causing damage and inflammation.
Any infection in the body could potentially cause meningitis as a secondary condition. Whether it’s a sinus infection, eye infection, an infected wound, or rickettsia from parasites like ticks. Other illnesses like canine distemper or parvovirus may be linked to meningitis as a secondary condition.
In any case, the infection can travel through the body via the bloodstream. Infections can also migrate to the nervous system from a connected area of the body, for example, an ear infection can move through the inner ear and into the brain. Other cases of meningitis are believed to be caused by exposure to toxins or chemical agents.
As mentioned above, some instances of meningitis in dogs might be the result of an auto-immune response where the dog’s immune system has attacked its own tissues, causing damage and inflammation.
Sadly, meningitis in dogs can also be idiopathic. This means that there is no known cause for the illness, or that a cause cannot be found.
No, meningitis in dogs is not contagious in itself.
However, in cases where meningitis has been caused by an infection from a disease or parasites, the cause of the infection could be contagious.
For example, your pooch might have developed meningitis as a secondary infection after suffering from a fungal infection. Although they won’t spread meningitis, they can spread the spores from the fungus which could infect other dogs.
No, meningitis is not zoonotic so you will not be able to catch meningitis from your dog. Nor can your dog catch meningitis from you if you suffer from the human version.
Meningitis does not seem to be any more common in dogs of certain genders or ages, and it can affect any dog at any point in their life. However, some breeds appear to be genetically predisposed to meningitis and at higher risk compared to the general doggy population.
The dog breeds at greater risk of developing meningitis are:
Bernese Mountain Dogs
German Shorthaired Pointers
Young puppies, elderly dogs, and immunocompromised dogs are also more at risk of developing meningitis due to their weakened or underdeveloped immune systems.
Unvaccinated dogs are also at risk of meningitis because they are at greater risk of becoming ill with diseases such as parvovirus and distemper, and meningitis can develop as a secondary condition from these infections.
The symptoms of meningitis in dogs can vary depending on what area of their nervous system is inflamed and how severe the inflammation is.
Muscle spasms in the back, neck, or front legs
Stiff neck or back
Decreased blood pressure
Loss of muscle control
Neurological symptoms such as seizures are more often associated with meningoencephalitis, which is inflammation of the brain and the meninges.
Regardless of their cause, if your dog shows any of these symptoms you must take them for a vet exam as soon as possible. Regardless of whether it’s meningitis or another condition that has caused their illness, early treatment gives them the best chance of recovery.
There is no sure-fire way to prevent meningitis in dogs, and it is impossible to prevent cases of meningitis caused by genetics or auto-immune responses.
The best way to reduce your dog’s risk of meningitis is to keep them in good overall health and prevent infection where possible.
This includes feeding them a healthy balanced diet to provide all the nutrients they need to maintain healthy tissues and a strong immune system. It will also mean visiting a vet to examine and treat your dog in times of illness to clear any infection quickly and to support their body.
We humans are vaccinated against meningitis as babies, but actually, this vaccination is not against meningitis itself. Instead, the vaccine protects us from the specific bacteria that is the most common cause of meningitis in humans. Similarly, vaccinating your dog against infections like parvovirus and distemper can help to protect them from meningitis because these infections can spread to the central nervous system and cause meningitis. Again, preventing meningitis comes from preventing any infection that could potentially cause it.
Keeping up with regular antiparasitic treatment will also help to prevent meningitis in dogs. Because some cases of meningitis can be triggered by infection from parasites, it’s important to prevent an infestation in the first place - no parasites means no infection.
Keeping your pup clean and well-groomed can also help as it’s a chance to physically examine your dog and to prevent skin infections. If your dog is ever injured, keeping their wound clean is important to prevent infection which could lead to meningitis.
Treating infection at its earliest stage is important for preventing meningitis because you can treat the infection before it has the chance to migrate to your dog’s central nervous system. That means if you ever suspect your pup is unwell you should always take them to the vet for a check-up. This is good practice anyway, because most conditions have a far better outlook if diagnosed and treated early.
Keeping up with your dog’s regular appointments, like booster injections, will also help as your vet will usually give your dog a general examination during your visit to check their overall health and it’s another opportunity to find signs of illness early.
Diagnosing meningitis comes from an assessment of your dog’s symptoms and testing to rule out other causes of their illness.
Your vet will conduct a physical exam including gently manipulating your dog’s neck to test for pain and stiffness. They might then examine your dog’s eyes to see if there have been any changes to their optic nerve.
A spinal tap will be used to drain some of your dog’s spinal fluid for testing in order to diagnose meningitis.
Your vet might take an MRI or a CAT scan of your dog’s head to be able to see their brain and assess its condition. These scans allow the veterinarian to study any lesions on your dog’s brain and determine if they have been caused by any conditions other than meningitis.
Your vet might conduct a number of other tests, such as blood tests, in order to rule out other possible illnesses that might be causing your dog’s symptoms.
The only way to accurately confirm meningitis is to take a biopsy of the brain tissue, which cannot be done while a dog is alive.
There is no specific cure for this condition, and treatment for meningitis in dogs involves treating their symptoms and reducing the inflammation in their meninges to make them more comfortable and to relieve any pain. Alleviating their symptoms gives your dog’s body the best chance of fighting the infection and making a recovery.
Because inflammation is caused by the dog’s own immune system, dogs suffering from meningitis will be given steroids either orally or through an injection to suppress their immune response with the aim of reducing inflammation. If your dog is suffering from steroid-responsive meningitis your vet will give them another steroid called prednisone which seems to help. Prednisone is also a powerful anti-inflammatory and is sometimes used as a first treatment option for meningitis in dogs. Treatment with steroids will usually last between 5 to 7 months and the dose will be gradually lowered until the dog is weaned off the medication.
Because a dog’s immune system will be repressed by steroids, dogs being treated for meningitis are vulnerable to secondary infection. Because of this, your vet will probably give your dog a course of antibiotics to help get rid of any infection already in their body that has been the cause of their meningitis, and it will help to protect them from new infections. Otherwise, antiparasitic medication or antifungal medicine might be used to treat other forms of infection.
Antibiotic and antimicrobial medication cannot help to treat a viral infection though. If your dog is unwell with a virus, your vet will treat their symptoms to support their body and give it the best chance of fighting off the infection.
Dogs who have been suffering from neurological symptoms such as seizures can be given anti-epileptic drugs to help prevent seizures and improve their quality of life. Antiemetics will also be given to dogs suffering from nausea and vomiting.
Pooches with meningitis will also be given pain relief to improve their comfort. Crate rest will limit their movement and encourage prolonged resting, giving your pup’s body a chance to recuperate. Other supportive care might include administering IV fluids to keep your pooch hydrated and to help keep them nourished if they’re struggling to eat or drink unaided.
There is no natural treatment or home remedy to treat meningitis in dogs. You could discuss with your vet if there are any holistic remedies or supplements you can try with your dog to see if they will make them more comfortable. Most vets will be happy to discuss this with you alongside traditional veterinary treatment.
Your dog’s individual prognosis will depend on what caused their meningitis, how well they have responded to treatment, and any underlying health conditions they already have.
For example, if your dog was an otherwise healthy adult that developed steroid-responsive meningitis, then they are more likely to recover within a few days. However, they will require treatment for up to 7 months until they are gradually taken off steroids.
However, it’s difficult to predict an outcome for dogs who have developed meningitis as a result of an infection or due to an auto-immune response, and your vet will give a much more guarded prognosis. If the infection has already reached your dog’s nervous system, the outcome is bleak.
Sadly, meningitis is fatal for many dogs, and some owners will also have to face the difficult decision to consider euthanasia.
Even during treatment or after remission, dogs can suffer a relapse and symptoms of meningitis can reoccur. This will involve starting treatment again. In the case of SRMA, about 20% of dogs will relapse after being taken off steroids. However, this can often be treated successfully by simply repeating treatment. Meanwhile, the prognosis is once again more guarded for relapses of other forms of meningitis in dogs.
Written by: Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS
Andy graduated from Bristol University in 2010 and sees nutrition as a foundation for our pet's wellbeing and takes a common-sense approach. We are what we eat, and it shouldn't be any different for our pets.