Other than seizures, we often mistake neurological changes in pets for other medical problems. We assume a pet who won’t eat feels sick to her stomach – not that she can’t eat. In older pets especially, we assume lameness or weakness stem from arthritis, orthopedic issues, or simple old age.
Neurological troubles in pets, however, leave telltale signs.
Neurology Exam Basics
Through a hands-on exam, your primary care veterinarian or board-certified veterinary neurologist can figure out if the problem is:
Neurological or not
Caused by trouble in the brain, spinal cord, or both
Drunken movements: Anytime a pet appears drunk in her movement, that’s a sure sign of neurological trouble.
When my Border Collie, Lilly, developed brain and spinal cord inflammation, she stumbled when she walked and rocked as if on a boat, even when lying down.
Strength issues: When a pet appears weak in one or more limbs, that too is neurological – likely coming from somewhere in the spine.
Postural responses: Veterinarians use a variety of challenges to your pet’s balance and sense of her body.
“Knuckling” a pet is the most common test. This simply means turning a pet’s toes under, while she is standing and supported, to see if she rights her foot and how quickly. Often this is the first test veterinarians will give because it’s a fast way to know if a problem is neurological or not.
Other reflexes and responses: Veterinarians will also look carefully at your pet’s eyes for unusual eye movements such as twitching.
In one test, your veterinarian will look for a “menace response” by making a threatening hand gesture toward each eye to see if the pet blinks. This is a learned response, not a reflex, but it tells your veterinarian if the pet can see or not, which gives good information on what may be going on in the brain.
Your veterinarian or veterinary neurologist will also check:
Eye movement relative to head movement
Facial sensation (by tapping lightly on areas of the head and face)
Withdrawal reflexes (when feet are pinched)
Skin sensation (when pinched)
Spinal movement and pain
Single symptom / multiple symptoms: Some 97% of neurology cases in pets get classified as “idiopathic” (meaning essentially of unknown origin). Typically, idiopathic neurology cases show up as a single symptom.
If your pet is also feverish or vomiting, along with neurological symptoms, then there is most likely a more distinct cause. For example, certain types of poisons are neurotoxins. Some infectious diseases cause a whole host of symptoms, along with neurological ones.
If the neurological exam tells your veterinarian that your pet shows signs of trouble in several areas of the brain or spine, that’s called being “multifocal.” It typically means some sort of inflammation – versus a localized brain tumor or stroke.
Other Neurological Diagnostics
Your veterinary team may recommend further tests – such as an MRI, CT scan, or spinal tap. These tests help veterinarians uncover or rule out the causes and severity of neurology trouble before making major treatment decisions, such as surgery.