Brain Cell Degeneration in Dogs

What is brain cell degeneration?

Brain cell degeneration, otherwise known as cerebellar abiotrophy, is inherited in which the cerebellar tissue of the brain degenerates over time. It is a neurological disorder and is more common in puppies. It can also happen to many different breeds. Brain cell degeneration occurs because of an absence of the nutrients required for these cells. Due to this lack of nutrients in the cerebellum, it affects the function responsible for your dog’s movements and balance. In essence, what is an integral part of the brain, ceases to work as it should, affecting your dog’s coordination totally. Before the puppies are born, these cells are normal; however, these same healthy cells begin to deteriorate after birth. 

Neuroaxonal dystrophy denotes loss of function because the cells and tissues begin to degenerate. This type of dystrophy is a group of inherited abiotrophy and affects different parts of the brain in your dog. Dogs such as Rottweilers, German Shepherds, and Boxers are found to be predisposed to such a disorder. 

In the case of cerebellar abiotrophy, dogs come under three groups:

  • Neonatal onset
  • Juvenile – six weeks to six months
  • Adult – one to eight years of age.

In many cases, the dogs do not have lesions anywhere else in the brain except the cerebellum. However, this type of cerebellar degeneration is combined with changes in the central nervous system like the cerebral cortex and autonomic nervous system.

Causes of brain cell degeneration in dogs

Exact causes are not known. However, the inherited gene is recessive, and this abnormal gene affects glutamate metabolism. 

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Abnormalities in the glutamate metabolism
  • Possible canine herpesvirus in utero
  • Possible canine herpesvirus in newborn puppies

Symptoms of brain cell degeneration in dogs

Cerebellar abiotrophy is associated with coordination, balance, and movements. They may occur at different times from four to sixteen weeks in puppies or in certain breeds that are at the young adult stages. The initial symptoms may go unnoticed and misunderstood as it appears to be a little clumsiness. As the disorder progresses, the lack of coordination will become apparent as you see your dog becoming unable to control range of motion or stand without a wide stance.

  • Uncoordinated gait
  • Swaying
  • Loss of balance
  • Falling over frequently
  • Head tilting
  • Decerebellate posture
  • Broad-based stance
  • Head shaking as if they find something in the ear
  • Tremors of the head
  • Walking difficulties
  • Difficulties in getting up 

Cerebellar abiotrophy is inherited and affects various breeds, with some of them being more susceptible to such a disorder. Some common breeds are:

  • Australian Kelpie
  • Airedale terrier
  • Beagles
  • Bernese Mountain Dogs
  • Miniature Poodles
  • Miniature Schnauzers
  • Border Collies
  • Bullmastiffs
  • English Bulldogs
  • Irish Setters
  • Labrador Retrievers

Diagnosis of Brain Cell Degeneration in Dogs

If you notice the listed symptoms in your dog, schedule a consultation with your dog’s vet. Take the medical history and lineage records. Some of the tests that will be required include blood tests, testing for infectious diseases, and urinalysis. To rule out other neurological conditions, your dog’s vet may perform a CSF tap, screen the urine acids, and check if there are any lysosomal storage diseases. Your dog will be given an MRI, as well. MRI will show the size of the cerebellum clearly. A Cerebrospinal fluid analysis may be required to look for abnormalities. 

It may be necessary to test your dog’s brain tissue. Unfortunately, while these tests may help your dog’s vet in identifying the disease, only a biopsy of the brain will be fully capable of giving answers, and that is possible only postmortem.

Treatment of brain cell degeneration in dogs

Thus far, there is no known treatment for brain cell degeneration in dogs. Prescription drugs such as amantadine, buspirone, and co-enzyme Q10, and acetyl-carnitine have been found somewhat favourable. 

Recovery of brain cell degeneration in dogs

This disorder is not always fatal, especially if your dog only shows mild symptoms. Your dog may still manage to live a full life as long as you keep him healthy and happy. Some dogs are more affected than others. If your dog shows signs of poor coordination, losing balance, or seems to be confused, your only choice is to keep him away from external influences that may be risky. Using stairs in your home would not be advisable. Areas that do not allow free movement will need to be cleared away. Being confused and with poor coordination, your dog is likely to get hurt by bumping into objects in the way. Your dog may also get lost if allowed to go outdoors without leash and supervision. 

What can you do as a pet parent?

Considering the restrictions because of the brain cell degeneration, your dog will need help moving around and exercise also will need to be restricted. Due to lack of balance, your dog may need help in passing urine or in pooping. Keeping your dog clean after each of these activities will be essential as your dog will not be aware of mishaps. 

As the disorder becomes more progressive, you will need to provide more supportive care along the same lines. Keeping your dog well cared for and managing the brain cell degeneration will be time-consuming. But, your dog deserves this level of love and care from you. However difficult it may be to observe the gradual decline of your dog’s faculties, you will have to be patient and supportive. There may come a time when you need to make a decision about euthanizing your loving companion. Consulting with the vet and understanding that your dog may be better off without further deterioration will help you arrive at that critical decision. Until then, do all you can to make your dog feel loved.


The information contained in VOSD Vet Advice™ is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical action which is provided by your vet. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information. For any emergency situation related to a dog’s health, please visit the nearest veterinary clinic.

Do you find this information useful? For more medical advice, visit the VOSD website.