If your dog or cat develops a tremor, an abnormal gait, or weak reflexes, talk to your vet, as your favorite four-legged friend may be suffering from polyneuropathy.
What Is Polyneuropathy?
Literally, “polyneuropathy” means “multiple damaged nerves.” This is not just multiple nerves in one area all being injured; polyneuropathy in dogs and cats involves the degradation of either the nerve sheath or the nerve fibers themselves in multiple parts of the body. It is not a disease, but rather a symptom of several other diseases and conditions.
Humans, cats, and dogs can all develop polyneuropathy, and most forms are not contagious. While it is a very serious diagnosis, most forms can be treated and sometimes cured.
What Are the Symptoms of Polyneuropathy?
Symptoms vary, depending on which of the three main types of nerves are involved (they’re described below). Also, your dog or cat might have trouble with more than one nerve type at the same time. Symptoms are usually symmetrical, appearing in both the left and right sides of the body at the same time. Depending on the cause, symptoms might worsen quickly or slowly, but the problem is always progressive.
Motor and Sensorimotor Polyneuropathies Symptoms
These nerves carry the signals that tell muscles how and when to move. Neuropathy in these nerves is characterized by the following:
- Muscle tremors and trembling
- Weakness, paralysis, or atrophy in muscles
- Poor or no reflexes
Sensory Nerve Polyneuropathies Symptoms
These nerves carry information from the body to the brain. Humans with these neuropathies report odd sensations or numbness. Human patients with multiple sclerosis, for example, often develop sensory nerve neuropathy in their feet, and have trouble with balance.
Your cat or dog can’t talk about sensations, but you might notice other signs.
- Disorientation, such as difficulty judging distance
- Loss of consciousness
Autonomic Nervous System Polyneuropathies Symptoms
The autonomic nervous system coordinates organs and glands. The animal isn’t aware of these nerve signals, but without them the body doesn’t work properly. Symptoms of this type may include:
- Dry nose, mouth, or eyes
- Loss of the anal reflex
- Slow heart rate
Specific forms of polyneuropathy can cause other symptoms, such as gait abnormalities or facial paralysis, or even voice changes. Most symptoms are the same for both cats and dogs, but there are exceptions. Doberman Pinschers, for example, can get a form of polyneuropathy that makes them periodically flex one or both hind legs. It looks a little like they’re dancing.
What Causes Polyneuropathy?
Many different problems cause polyneuropathy. Cats and dogs share some of these causes but not all of them. For example, the feline leukemia virus can cause polyneuropathy, but it’s a strictly feline virus. All the various causes of polyneuropathy fall into one of five basic groups.
- Congenital or genetic problems
- Infections and parasites, such as feline leukemia virus or Coonhound paralysis (which is spread by raccoons and is not breed-specific)
- Metabolic diseases, such as diabetes or pancreatic cancer
- Auto-immune diseases, such as lupus
- Toxins or drugs, such as pesticides or certain cancer medications
Does My Pet Have Polyneuropathy?
Diagnosing polyneuropathy is difficult, since other medical problems have similar symptoms. The are several tests required for diagnosis, such as electrophysiology, which measures the electrical activity of the nerves. Not all general vets do these tests, and you may need to find a specialist. Your vet can rule out other possibilities and help you decide whether to take your animal to a specialist.
How Is Polyneuropathy Treated?
Ideally, your vet can find the cause of the polyneuropathy and take care of it, but that isn’t always possible. Most congenital forms of the problem have no effective treatment.
Sometimes, the underlying cause of the nerve damage is never found. And sometimes, even if the underlying cause is found and cured, the polyneuropathy persists and gets worse.
Even if your dog or cat’s polyneuropathy can’t be cured, there’s a lot you and your vet can do to fight for positive outcomes. If the nerves involved in breathing or eating are involved, or if symptoms get worse rapidly, your pet may need to be hospitalized. Otherwise, your vet may prescribe steroids, help you treat symptoms, or help you arrange for physical therapy.
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