In the span of eight weeks, my world was turned upside down. My beloved rescue dog Leo went from a vibrant, healthy pet that joined me for trail adventures and camping trips to passing away from an autoimmune disease of the brain and spine known as aseptic meningitis.
In this blog post, I’m sharing a bit about our experience and the warning signs to help other dog parents potentially recognize this illness early on, so they can start treatments ASAP. I also want to be transparent that part-way through the illness treatment, my veterinarian believed my dog may have had a secondary condition, possibly cancer, in addition to this neurological autoimmune condition. (Leo started to lose muscle weight rapidly. That symptom is not typical of meningitis.)
However, his initial presenting symptoms checked all the boxes for immune-system mediated canine aseptic meningitis, so I want to share what this looked like from a pet parent perspective.
Disclosure: This blog is reader-supported, which means this post contains affiliate links and advertisements. I earn a small commission if you shop through them, which helps fund this website so I can continue to bring you amazing content. Thank you! ~Angela
The First Subtle Changes I Noticed in My Dog
At the end of March 2023, I went on a road trip to Omaha to visit with my neurologist. Leo and my boyfriend went along. We made it into a getaway weekend with visits to forests, parks and trails.
We noticed that Leo seemed to be a bit slower getting in and out of the car and wasn’t as excited to go for walks. We brushed it off as being tired from so much fun. After all, that’s normal when traveling, right?
I also noticed that he wasn’t very interested in some homemade dog treats that I bought at a coffee shop for him. I figured he wasn’t wild about the flavor and brushed it off as a poor purchase. Later, I learned that it’s difficult for dogs with this condition to chew hard, crunchy foods, so he likely shied away from the treat due to pain.
A week after the road trip, I was on a walk with Leo and he let out a yelp when his head brushed against my leg. This was very uncommon for him. I figured I stepped on his paw or he stepped on a sharp rock. Nothing to worry about.
Later that week, I noticed Leo looking confused in the yard. He seemed to not understand how to get back into the house after a potty break. He used a doggy door, and couldn’t seem to find it, or maneuver the flap. He looked mentally lost.
A day or two later, Leo yelped when jumping out of the back of my SUV. I knew something was wrong. He had done that movement many, many times with no issue. He also started to hesitate to get into the car — and this dog was always up for a car ride!
I decided it was time to call the veterinarian. I explained that I thought my dog pulled a muscle in his neck and we needed some muscle relaxers. So, we started on those and some Vetprofen, a pet form of ibuprofen, because Leo was almost nine years old and a large breed pitbull mix that was apparently showing signs of early arthritis.
After a week, his pain was increasing, and I knew this wasn’t arthritis or a pulled muscle. Something was very wrong. So, we went back to the vet.
Canine Meningitis Testing and Our Treatment Choices
At our follow-up visit, I explained to the vet that Leo sometimes seemed confused. It reminded me of my previous pittie who had canine cognitive dysfunction in his elder years. This is similar to human dementia. Leo just looked mentally distant and lost sometimes.
The vet immediately paused and said that the combination of neck pain and mental confusion are the top two red flags for canine meningitis. This illness can be triggered by a bacteria, virus, or a faulty immune system.
We then proceeded to do lots of bloodwork testing, a full body x-ray and I was offered a referral to a veterinary neurologist in Omaha to get a canine MRI and canine spinal tap to determine what form of meningitis Leo had. If you suspect your dog has a similar condition, ask for this testing too. I did not do this testing because Leo was not well enough to manage a long-distance car ride. And, to be frank, I didn’t have pet insurance. The starting cost for a canine MRI in my area is about $5,000. Then you also have the cost of the spinal tap. So we decided to do testing locally and ultimately treat him as if he had been positively diagnosed since all his symptoms pointed toward meningitis.
We also used bloodwork tests to rule out common illnesses including Lyme disease, heartworm and organ failure. We also looked for things that would indicate cancer, like elevated white blood cell counts. All of Leo’s bloodwork looked stable. His full-body x-ray was clear too. No tumors, bone issues, dental issues or concerns could be seen. This pointed to immune system dysfunction, which is difficult to manage.
We started Leo on a high-dose course of prednisone, stayed on the muscle relaxers and eventually added gabapentin, herbal supplements and whole foods nutritional support to his care plan. I also integrated lots of holistic measures including meditation, massage, binaural beats music, crystals and breathing exercises. We were also offered chemotherapy medicine (azathioprine), but I opted not to go that route because Leo was declining rapidly and didn’t feel the medicine would benefit him faster than the illness was progressing.
Some dogs are responsive to prednisone and fall into the category of SRMA – Steroid Responsive Meningitis. Some are not responsive, and we believe that’s the category that Leo fell into.
My heart breaks as I write this up, but my hopes are that this information will help other dog owners or caretakers recognize the symptoms early on, so their beloved pets can get treatment as soon as possible, and have a better chance at survival.
Online Resources About Canine Meningitis
Here is a list of online resources to browse for more information about meningitis in dogs. You can also search for veterinary neurologists in your area or ask your veterinarian for a referral to a specialist who manages canine meningitis.
- VCA Animal Hospitals, “Meningitis in Dogs“, By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Catherine Barnette, DVM
- AURA Veterinary, “Steroid Responsive Meningitis-Arteritis (SRMA)“
- PetCareRx, “Treatment and Prevention of Dog Meningitis“, By Meredith Allen
- The MSPCA–Angell, “Steroid Responsive Meningitis-Arteritis“, By Jennifer Michaels, DVM, DACVIM (Neurology)
- Facebook groups – Do a search because these may change. I was part of two groups when I was caring for Leo. I found it wonderfully supportive to chat with other dog parents, hear about what treatments and supplements they were using and hear uplifting stories of healing.
This illness seems to progress quickly, requires ample patience to manage and often takes months (sometimes years) to heal — and comes with relapses. Build a care team you can trust and count on, do the research and give your pet all the love and support you can during this difficult time. If your pet has any of the symptoms I’ve mentioned, call your vet TODAY. Do not wait.
Leo’s initial symptoms were:
- Less interest in eating (because it hurt to bend his head down into the food bowl and to chew hard kibble because it causes neck pain)
- Not turning his head to look around
- Not taking crunchy dog treats (hurts to chew hard things)
- Neck pain (I thought he pulled a muscle in his neck)
- Being hesitant to jump in or out of the car (because of neck and spine pain)
- Sitting in the yard looking lost (because of inflammation in the brain)
- Sitting outside the doggie door, not knowing how to come inside (again, brain inflammation)
Leo and I thank you for doing all that you can for your pet.
Until next time,
PS: Wonder what I’m up to today? Visit me on Facebook at Cupcakes and Yoga Pants!