Locally-Owned in Oakdale and St. Paul, Minnesota

Hydrocephalus in Dogs & Cats

A veterinary MRI and viewing room, Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota, veterinary neurology

If your pet is suddenly unable to walk or get up, or if your pet is experiencing active seizures, cluster seizures, or status epilepticus, these are considered “RED” – or true emergencies – on our Fast Track Triage system. We advise you to seek immediate veterinary care. Please call ahead of your arrival so the veterinary team knows to expect you!

  • To transport a pet with a suspected spinal injury, gently move them onto a flat, firm surface such as an ironing board, piece of plywood, sled, or even a cookie sheet for smaller pets.

Note that a single seizure that lasts less than five minutes with full recovery is considered a “GREEN” case on our Fast Track Triage system. This means emergency care isn’t needed, but your pet should be evaluated by your family veterinarian within the next few days.

  • If your pet is currently experiencing seizures, keep them safe. This may include blocking off stairs or sides of furniture.
  • A seizing pet is not aware of his/her surroundings. They can continue to seem “out of it” for minutes to hours afterwards and behavior can be unpredictable.
  • To avoid being bitten, do not place hands near your pet’s mouth.
  • To transport your pet to the car, roll the pet onto a blanket, and then lift the blanket.

Hydrocephalus is a condition where there is spinal fluid build-up in the brain. In cats and dogs, our Neurology Service most commonly treats obstructive hydrocephalus – a type of hydrocephalus that is caused by an obstruction/blockage of the normal flow of the spinal fluid and skull. This build-up of spinal fluid puts pressure on the normal brain tissue and causes it to atrophy or get smaller. Over time, this can lead to permanent loss of the brain tissue.  

Since this is often a congenital condition – meaning the pet is born this way – it’s important for pet parents to recognize the signs and discuss any concerns with their pet’s veterinary team.  

Common Signs:

  • Dome-shaped skull 
  • “Sun-set” eyes (the eyes point down and towards the side) 
  • Behavior changes 
  • Seizures 
  • Visual deficits 
  • Difficulty walking 
A brain MRI of a normal dog brain (left) and a hydrocephalic dog brain (right), Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota

Pictured is a brain MRI of a normal dog brain (left) and a hydrocephalic dog brain (right).

Diagnosis 

To diagnose hydrocephalus, your pet’s veterinary team will recommend imaging. 

  • The most common way to diagnose hydrocephalus is with an MRI or CT scan. 
    • An MRI is preferred because it is better at delineating all the brain structures. This is important because it’s common that dogs with one congenital abnormality may have many more so your veterinary team will want to ensure they’re getting the whole story! 
  • In some small dogs with hydrocephalus, they often have a fontanelle (an opening in their skull) that allows the veterinary team to ultrasound the brain through the opening instead of performing an MRI or CT scan. This opening is less common in medium and large breed dogs though due to their thicker skulls. 
Pictured is a post-operative radiograph of a young dog with obstructive hydrocephalus that had a ventriculoperitoneal shunt placed. The blue arrow points to the shunt in the brain and the red one to the abdomen shunt, Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota

Pictured is a post-operative radiograph of a young dog with obstructive hydrocephalus that had a ventriculoperitoneal shunt placed. The blue arrow points to the shunt in the brain and the red one to the abdomen shunt.

Treatment Options 

There are both surgical and medical treatment options:  

  • Surgical Treatment
    • Surgical treatment is preferred, as this has a better long-term outcome for the pet.
      • It’s important to note that not all pets are surgical candidates. Some pets may not be able to move forward with surgery due to having lost too much brain tissue, having multiple congenital abnormalities, or other factors as determined by your pet’s veterinary team. 
    • For pets able to proceed with surgery, know that the surgery involves placing a shunt to give a direct path for the spinal fluid to exit the skull and get transported to the abdomen. 
      • One end of the shunt is placed in a lateral ventricle in the brain and the other in the abdomen. 
    • Dogs and cats can do very well with this surgery, and it’s one of my favorite surgeries! 
  • Medical Management 
    • Medical management consists of using medications to decrease spinal fluid production, as well any other medications that are necessary based on the pet’s clinical signs 
      • For example: a pet with seizures will also be started on anti-seizure medications 
    • Medications that are routinely started often include steroids and omeprazole (Prilosec). 

Surgery room, Dr. Carpentier performing surgery on pet on surgical table, Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota

If you observe signs of obstructive hydrocephalus in your pet, consult with your family veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary neurologist. Your pet’s veterinary team will guide you through the diagnosis process, as well as selecting the best treatment option for your pet. 

Learn more about our Neurology Service here.

More Reading:

Missy Carpentier, DVM, DACVIM (Neurology), board-certified veterinary neurologist, board-certified veterinary neurosurgeon

Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota, Fast Track Triage, color-coded triage system, pet emergency, Twin Cities emergency vet, Minnesota emergency vet, Saint Paul emergency vet, Oakdale emergency vet

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