Canine Meningitis

A Quick Guide to Canine Meningitis

Canine meningitis is much like the human version of the same illness. It begins as a viral or bacterial infection which affects the dog’s nervous system and begins causing the tissue around the spinal cord and brain to swell. It is usually caused by a meningococcus infection. Canine meningitis is a life threatening disease for your dog but it can be treated successfully if you get your dog to the vet in time for adequate diagnosis and treatment.

The symptoms of canine meningitis are a neck which is inflexible and sore, overall muscle stiffness, high fever, back spasms which are very painful, and not wanting to be touched (because it hurts). Usually the dog will become very lethargic and stop eating. If your dog should acquire canine meningitis, he (or she) will walk stiffly and his head will be incredibly stiff. Both head and chin will look like they are tilting backwards. Because the skin is extra sensitive to pain, the dog will likely jump back and yelp if touched.

If canine meningitis should progress to an advanced stage, the dog will likely be unable to stand or be coordinated enough to walk. Advanced meningitis brings with it paralysis, seizures, blindness, depression, and eventually, death.

As with human beings, diagnosis of meningitis is confirmed with a spinal tap. The spinal fluid is looked at under a microscope, and if positive, there will be high readings of white blood cells and protein. If this test should be negative or inconclusive, an MRI will probably be the next test, to see if there is a herniated disk or anything else pressing on the spinal cord.

Toy breeds of dogs and large breeds of dogs are the most susceptible to meningitis. Other causes can be toxoplasmosis--a disease caused by a parasite, or a nervous system disease, known as granulomatous meningoencephalomyelitis, (GME). Meningitis can also be caused by diseases carried by ticks, such as Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, or Rocky Mounted spotted fever. Canine distemper viruses can lead to meningitis. Idiopathic (sterile) meningitis is the most common form of meningitis and affects dogs who are under a year and a half of age.

Although the majority of canine meningitis cases are caused by bacterial or viral infections, there are some types of dogs that have been found to be genetically predisposed to meningitis. Included in this category of canines are beagles, boxers, pugs, Maltese, and Bernese mountain dogs. No one knows why some breeds of dogs have a genetic abnormality and others do not, or why it is the tiniest and largest breeds most affected by meningitis.

There is still much more research to be done on canine meningitis. In most of these breeds, meningitis is treated with corticosteroids at very high does. Once symptoms are under control, your vet will try to taper down the dosage to one that is lower. A likely scenario would be taking the meds every other day. Then, if all is well after six months, treatment will most likely end. There may be some dogs who are unable to go off the meds and will be on them for the rest of their lives.


In pugs, there is a genetic predisposition toward encephalitis, which is still a swelling of the brain, but a different part of the brain than is targeted by meningitis. The symptoms are pretty much the same as for canine meningitis.

No dog which has had meningitis should be bred, and neither should any of the other pups in the litter or the parents. Whenever you purchase a purebred dog, make sure to get a medical history and ask if any of the dogs in that blood line have had meningitis or any other illness or condition which might be inherited.

If you notice any symptoms of canine meningitis in your dog, get him or her to the vet immediately. The sooner treatment begins, the better the chances of a successful recovery.