Checkup: Talking to the doc about neurological disorders


Unscheduled trips to the vet are never fun. But as bad as a lacerated paw or bowel obstruction might be, when a beloved pet’s nervous system goes wonky, the stress level increases exponentially. Perhaps that’s because an issue with the brain or nervous system feels so BIG compared to allergies or broken bones. Dr. Sophie Petersen, neurologist at Cascade Veterinary  Referral Center, chatted with Spot about neurological scenarios that most often affect our pets, and symptoms that can signal when something’s not right.

Dr. Petersen recently moved back to the Portland area from Madison, WI, where she was an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. She and her husband live with their two dogs: Murky, a German Shepherd, and Poppy, a miniature Dachshund.

Talking about her canine family members raised the interesting fact: veterinary neurologists frequently adopt Doxies. Because the breed is particularly susceptible to neurological problems, those specializing in them get to meet many. Petersen says, “Most of us fall in love with the breed. We get to know them because so many of our patients are Dachshunds.”

Dr. Peterson offered this overview of common concerns to watch for in all breeds, and in both cats and dogs.

Slipped and Herniated Discs: When the rubbery disks that keep the bones in the back from grinding against each other rupture they can put pressure on the spinal cord, which is not only incredibly painful, but can even cause paralysis. While dogs are more prone that cats, the problem can affect either species. Watch out for sudden weakness or paralysis in the legs. “Usually surgery is recommended,” says Petersen, “but it depends on how severely affected they are. It’s not an automatic treatment.”

Seizures: Localized and full-body seizures can signal a variety of neurological problems. Epilepsy is the most common cause of full-body seizures, which is typically managed with medication. “In the past we had to choose between seizures and side effects from Phenobarbital or potassium bromide,” says the doctor. Recently, however, medications approved for treating epilepsy in humans have become available to veterinarians. These new drugs have fewer side effects, significantly improving the patient’s quality of life.

Brain Tumors: Seizures or sudden changes in behavior or coordination can all point to a brain tumor in your dog or cat. Petersen explains that “for the most part brain diseases aren’t managed surgically; they’re managed with medication. However, if a tumor seems benign and is located close to the surface of the skull, surgery can be a successful treatment.”

FCE (Fibrocartilagious Embolism): This problem mostly affects younger large-breed dogs, usually during heavy activity. “In mid jump they can fall down and not be able to walk,” says Dr. Petersen. “It’s actually one of my favorite diagnoses,” she says. “As dramatic as it is, there’s no pain, the dog often fully recovers, and surgery isn’t necessary.”

FCE affects cats as well, but not as often. Petersen explains that though the cause isn’t certain, the popular theory is that an embolism made up of disc material gets lodged in the spinal cord.

Vertigo (Vestibular Disease): Petersen frequently sees pets, especially older animals, with vertigo — trouble staying upright, walking in circles, leaning to one side, head cocked to one side, eyes moving back and forth abnormally. Vertigo that comes on suddenly can be a sign of Idiopathic Vestibular Disease - the vestibular system is what gives animals their sense of balance. “It can be very scary,” says Petersen. “It comes out of the blue. Your pet can’t walk and it often causes vomiting.” But, like FCE, it’s a “good” diagnosis, because recovery is almost certain. “Usually in a few days they will be walking again,” says the doctor.

Unlike FCE, neurologists don’t really know what causes Idiopathic Vestibular Disease. “We recognize the symptoms, we know what it is and that they’ll get better, but we don’t really know what causes it,” says Petersen.

An Ounce of Prevention

While it’s hard to prevent problems like tumors or epilepsy, Dr. Petersen recommends keeping dogs lean and fit to avoid all kinds of health issues, including spinal injuries and especially herniated discs. If your pup hails from a breed predisposed to neurological issues, try to avoid high-impact exercise like agility. In the event symptoms like seizures or trouble walking occur, take your pet to the vet. While surgery isn’t always the best treatment, when it is necessary, the sooner the procedure occurs, the better the chance of full recovery.


Jake Faris is a freelance writer who's worn many different hats, including a hardhat and the 8-point hat of a police officer. Jake and his wife Charity live with their three cats and four dogs in Beaverton. The whole pack moved to Portland from Wenatchee, Washington, years ago. Now a dedicated Oregonian, Jake finds new reasons to love his adopted state very day. Contact him here