Meningitis, strictly speaking, is an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that line the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). That's why the majority of meningitis cases we're familiar with are as a result of bacterial or viral infections. Some rarer kinds of meningitis, however, are the result of inherited abnormalities of the canine immune system. These will be the focus of this discussion.
Three kinds of meningitis are known to be related to inherited traits: beagle pain syndrome, aseptic meningitis and necrotizing meningo-encephalitis (also known as "pug encephalitis"). The latter is considered a devastating disease that always carries a poor prognosis.
Symptoms and Identification
Affected dogs will have symptoms that wax and wane, including severe neck pain, seizures, stiffness, depression and muscle rigidity. Fevers, circling or blindness may also result. Signs of the disease in the case of beagle pain syndrome and aseptic meningitis will become evident early in life, typically between 3 and 12 months of age. For necrotizing meningo-encephalitis diagnosis is always achieved through cerebro-spinal fluid (CSF) tap. MRIs or CT scans are also typically undertaken to help identify characteristic lesions and rule out conditions with similar symptoms.
Beagle pain syndrome is seen only in Beagles. Aseptic meningitis is a disease of Bernese Mountain Dogs. Necrotizing meningo-encephalitis includes the Pug and Maltese as predisposed breeds.
While there is no cure for this group of conditions, management of the symptoms is possible in the case of beagle pain syndrome and aseptic meningitis. Palliative treatment for these patients is achieved through high doses of corticosteroids that can sometimes be tapered for long-term side-effect management.
No treatment has been found to be effective for pug encephalitis. Dogs are normally euthanized within days to weeks of diagnosis.
The cost of these diseases is almost exclusively confined to their often-expensive diagnosis. Because neurologists and/or internists, pathologists and radiologists are generally required for definitive diagnosis, the expense is not insignificant. Expect these fees to run between $1,500 and $4,000.
Because we have no idea how these diseases are inherited, preventing them through breeding programs is sometimes difficult. At a minimum, however, affected dogs and their first degree relatives should not be bred.
Ackerman, L. 1999. The Genetic Condition: A Guide to Health Problems in Purebred Dogs. pp 137-138. AAHA Press. Lakewood, Colorado.
LeCouteur, R.A., Child, G. 1995. Diseases of the spinal cord. In S.J. Ettinger and E.C. Feldman (eds.) Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine, p. 629-696. W.B. Saunders Co., Toronto.
Meric, S.M. 1992. Breed-specific meningitis in dogs. In J.D. Bonoguara and R.W. Kirk (eds) Kirk's Current Veterinary Therapy XI Small Animal Practice. pp. 1007-1009. W.B. Saunders Co., Toronto.