Hydrocephalus in Dogs

Hydrocephalus is a neurological disorder in which excessive amounts of cerebrospinal fluid accumulate in the brain. Cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF, is produced by the normal brain and serves to protect and clean the tissues of the brain. Here's what you should know about this dangerous condition.

Causes of Hydrocephalus in Dogs

Hydrocephalus can occur due to birth defects, infections acquired in the womb or shortly after birth, injury before, during or soon after birth, or tumors in the central nervous system. Hydrocephalus typically affects either very young dogs, less than 18 months of age, or dogs older than six years of age. Toy breeds are more prone to this disease than other breeds. 

Symptoms of Hydrocephalus in Dogs

Symptoms of hydrocephalus in dogs vary depending on the the area of the brain that's damage, the amount of damage that occurs, the age of the dog at the time of disease onset, and the cause of the disease. Here are some of the symptoms of hydrocephalus in dogs:

  • Altered mental state; dogs may seem unusually dull and slow in their thinking, or unusually excitable
  • Impairment or loss of vision or hearing
  • Vocalization
  • Lack of motor control
  • Circling
  • Head tilt
  • Head pressing
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Seizures
  • Coma

In very young dogs, where the bones of the skull are still soft, hydrocephalus may cause bulging in the head, especially at the soft spot found on the heads of newborn puppies. Hydrocephalus may push the dog's eyes out of position, making the whites of his eyes visible near the nose.

Diagnosing Hydrocephalus in Dogs

Your vet will need a complete medical history and thorough physical examination in order to make a diagnosis of hydrocephalus. He may take X-rays and ultrasounds, and may perform an MRI or another type of imaging test to evaluate the extent of the damage to your dog's brain. He may need to perform an electroencephalogram (EEG) or a spinal tap. He may want to perform tests designed to evaluate the function of your dog's major organs, such as the kidneys and liver.

Treatment and Prognosis for Hydrocephalus in Dogs

Treatment plans vary depending on the severity of your dog's hydrocephalus. Your vet may prescribe drugs to help decrease the production of CSF in your dog's brain, or to help your dog's body absorb CSF more efficiently. Your dog might need surgery to shunt the flow of CSF away from the brain.

You'll need to protect your dog from injuries, and he won't be able to fly or change altitudes, since changes in atmospheric pressure could put him at risk for brain damage. Your dog will need regularly veterinary care for the rest of his life, to help manage his condition.

Without treatment, hydrocephalus almost always causes death. Even with treatment, your dog's prognosis may be poor. The more severe your dog's symptoms, the more unlikely he is to recover. Dogs with congenital hydrocephalus are most responsive to treatment, and often go on to live normal, happy lives.