Meningitis and Your Pet

December 13, 2019

Meningitis and Your Pet

Your pet’s nervous system is a delicate communication network that is responsible for maintaining important body functions. Neurologic disease or injury can affect critical processes, with significant systemic effects. Meningitis is a neurologic disease occasionally diagnosed in dogs and cats that may require the care of a board-certified veterinary neurologist. If your family veterinarian suspects that your pet may have meningitis, CASE’s neurology department will work with her to develop a diagnostic and treatment plan. 

What Is Meningitis in Pets?

Meningitis is inflammation of the meninges, which are membrane layers that cover the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can be caused by a number of pathogens, including:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Fungi
  • Parasites

Meningitis can also be caused by an inappropriate immune-system response. In some cases, a cause is not apparent.

Meningitis is not common in pets, because the nervous system is protected by a barrier that prevents most toxins and pathogens from entering. However, infection can occur if the barrier is weakened by immunosuppression or illness. Meningitis-causing pathogens can spread to the meninges through the blood from another infection site; directly from nearby sinuses, ears, and eyes; as a result of trauma; or via nerve roots. Meningeal inflammation can also extend to the brain, causing meningoencephalitis, and can cause abscess formation in the brain and spinal cord.

What Are Meningitis Clinical Signs in Pets?

Typical meningitis signs in pets include:

  • Neck pain 
  • Reluctance of your pet to lift her head or look to the side
  • Fever
  • Inappetance
  • Lethargy

Meningoencephalitis cases that also involve the brain can cause more advanced clinical signs, such as:

  • Blindness
  • Partial paralysis
  • Lack of coordination
  • Seizures
  • Behavioral changes
  • Head tilt
  • Difficulty eating
  • Unconsciousness 

If your pet displays any of these signs, your family veterinarian should evaluate her immediately. Meningitis can progress rapidly, and early diagnosis and treatment are critical for recovery.  

How Is Meningitis Diagnosed in Pets?

veterinary neurology

The most accurate diagnostic test for meningitis is MRI in conjunction with a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis. CSF is collected via spinal tap, a procedure that involves inserting a needle through the top of the neck into the spinal canal. CSF collection must be performed under anesthesia to prevent pain, and to prevent pets from moving and damaging nearby neurologic structures. After collection, microscopic CSF evaluation is performed to identify generalized inflammation signs and the specific meningitis cause. If a bacterial origin is suspected, a culture and sensitivity will be performed to identify the specific bacterial species present, as well as antibiotics that will be effective for treatment. Additional testing may be required to identify other causative organisms, such as fungi, parasites, or viruses.

In addition to CSF analysis, other diagnostic tests may be performed to evaluate your pet’s overall health status and disease extent, such as:

  • Complete blood count — to analyze blood cell numbers to diagnose general conditions, such as inflammation, infection, and anemia
  • Blood chemistry — to measure various blood chemicals to evaluate organ function
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — to evaluate the brain and spinal cord to rule out other neurologic disease

How Is Meningitis in Pets Treated?

Meningitis treatment is based on each patient’s specific case and the cause of inflammation. Cases caused by bacteria or fungal organisms are treated with antimicrobial drugs. Steroids or other immunosuppressant medications may be used to treat meningitis caused by an immune-system reaction. Antiparasitic medications are used to treat parasite-related cases. Additional treatment often involves supportive care, such as pain relief, intravenous fluids, nutritional support, and physical therapy.

If you have questions about meningitis, or if your family veterinarian suspects that your pet may have meningitis, contact us immediately.