Meningoencephalitis of Unknown Origin

By Catherine Barnette, DVM

meningoencephalitis_2What is meningoencephalitis of unknown origin?

Meningoencephalitis is a term referring to inflammation of the brain and the surrounding fluid and tissues. In canine patients, meningoencephalitis can often be further characterized into one of three types: granulomatous meningoencephalomyelitis (GME), necrotizing meningoencephalitis (NME), and necrotizing leukoencephalitis (NLE). Each type of meningoencephalitis differs in the specific brain and spinal cord changes observed at the cellular level and there are slight variations in the management and prognosis for each disease. However, all three conditions are caused by an abnormal immune response directed against the patient’s own tissues.

Meningoencephalitis of unknown origin is a term used to describe those cases of meningoencephalitis in which MRI and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis indicate inflammatory, non-infectious central nervous system (CNS) disease but diagnosis through histopathological analysis is not available. In a situation in which microscopic evaluation of nervous system tissue is impossible or impractical, meningoencephalitis of unknown origin may be diagnosed.

What dogs are most commonly affected with meningoencephalitis of unknown origin?

Meningoencephalitis of unknown origin is most commonly seen in small-breed dogs, suggesting a possible genetic basis for the condition. Large-breed dogs, however, can also occasionally develop the disease. Females are affected more frequently than males and affected dogs are typically over six months of age.

What are the clinical signs of meningoencephalitis of unknown origin?

Clinical signs of meningoencephalitis involve neurologic signs, which vary depending on which areas of the brain are affected with inflammation. Most commonly, signs of meningoencephalitis include seizures, muscle tremors, blindness, head tilt, vestibular signs (dizziness or falling over), or a head tilt. Affected dogs may also exhibit abnormal behaviors, such as compulsive walking in circles. Some dogs may appear painful or become paralyzed.

These signs may develop suddenly, or they may progress slowly over a period of weeks to months.


How is meningoencephalitis of unknown origin diagnosed?

Your veterinarian will first perform a physical exam, as well as bloodwork to assess your dog’s cell counts and internal organ function. If this bloodwork does not show any abnormalities that would explain the neurologic signs, your veterinarian will perform infectious disease testing to rule out infections that could be responsible for your dog’s neurologic signs.

If these initial tests are normal and no obvious causes for the neurologic abnormalities are found, your veterinarian will likely refer you to a veterinary neurologist. The neurologist will likely perform two additional tests to aid in the diagnosis of meningoencephalitis: MRI and CSF analysis.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a type of imaging that uses a strong magnetic field to generate three-dimensional views of internal body structures. With the images provided through MRI, the veterinary neurologist can assess the internal structure of your dog’s brain and look for characteristic abnormalities that may suggest meningoencephalitis. This procedure is performed under general anesthesia, because your dog must remain still for a prolonged period of time in order to obtain high-quality images.

While your dog is anesthetized, the veterinary neurologist will also perform a procedure known as a CSF tap. The brain and spinal cord are surrounded by cerebral spinal fluid, which acts as a shock absorber and protects the brain and spinal cord. In a CSF tap, a small amount of this fluid is removed using a long needle, and the fluid can be analyzed. The composition of the fluid will be tested and the fluid will be examined under a microscope to assess what types of cells are present. The results of CSF analysis can be used to assess for the presence of meningoencephalitis.

How is meningoencephalitis of unknown origin treated?

Meningoencephalitis of unknown origin is typically caused by an underlying autoimmune condition; therefore, affected dogs are typically treated with immunosuppressant drugs. Commonly used drugs include prednisone, dexamethasone, cyclosporine, azathioprine, and other medications. Speak with your veterinarian about the specific medications that your dog will be taking, in order to discuss possible side effects and precautions.

Additionally, your veterinarian may also prescribe antibiotics to address the possibility of underlying infection and to prevent infections that could trigger worsening of the autoimmune disease. These antibiotics may include doxycycline, enrofloxacin, or clindamycin.


What is the prognosis for meningoencephalitis of unknown origin?

Multiple factors are associated with survival rates in patients with meningoencephalitis of unknown origin. Dogs who have confined, focal lesions have a better prognosis than dogs with multifocal (widespread) disease. Dogs who present with seizures at the time of diagnosis often have a worse prognosis than those without seizures.

Perhaps one of the best predictors of prognosis, however, is the response to therapy. Dogs showing an improvement in both MRI appearance and CSF fluid analysis after three months of treatment typically have a good long-term prognosis. If dogs do not respond within the first three months of treatment, their prognosis is guarded.

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