"Canine dysautonomia or Key-Gaskell syndrome in dogs
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"Canine dysautonomia or Key-Gaskell syndrome in dogs

Dogs
Health & Safety

Dysautonomia (also known as Key-Gaskell syndrome) is a health condition that can affect the dog’s autonomic nervous system, for reasons that are unknown-some schools of thought suggest that the condition is congenital or hereditary, although this has not been proven, and it is equally likely to be idiopathic, meaning that essentially, we don’t know why it occurs.

Dysautonomia is a reasonably rare canine disorder in the UK, which tends to affect younger dogs the most-but any dog can potentially develop the condition at any point in their lives.

In this article, we will look at dysautonomia in dogs in more detail, including the symptoms it causes, what the condition means for affected dogs, and the prognosis after diagnosis. Read on to learn more.

More about canine dysautonomia

Dysautonomia in dogs affects the autonomic nervous system, which is part of the dog’s wider nervous system and that is responsible for controlling and monitoring a range of bodily functions including breathing, heart rate, salivation, digestion and urination, among others.

These functions are all generally unconscious-your dog doesn’t think about the fact they breathe or digest their food, after all!

Dysautonomia causes some or all of these functions (and others controlled by the autonomic nervous system) to malfunction or not work properly, and the condition can either occur apparently out of the blue and on its own, or as a secondary complication of other systemic illnesses and problems that affect the nervous system and its healthy function.

What causes the condition?

Canine dysautonomia can be caused by various neurological diseases, and also by an injury or illness that affects the nervous system. In humans, hereditary nerve disorders that cause congenital defects can cause dysautonomia, although whether or not canine dysautonomia is congenital or not is a matter of some debate.

Research into the condition indicates that it tends to crop up more regularly in certain types of dogs than others, but no underlying gene mutation or congenital flaw has been identified to explain this. Also, not enough study has been done on the condition as a potentially hereditary issue to definitively determine if it is inherited or not.

When the first symptoms of the condition begins, there may have been a triggering incident, such as an illness or injury that affects the nervous system-although this is not always the case either.

What sort of dogs are at risk?

Dogs with dysautonomia tend to be adults at the time of first diagnosis, but generally, younger dogs (under the age of around five) are those most likely to be diagnosed with the condition, and it is less common in older adults. However, it can be diagnosed at any age.

Males and females are equally likely to be affected, and in America where the condition is more widely spread, there appears to be a geographical correlation with the condition, with it being more common in certain areas and states than others.

As mentioned, whether or not the condition has a hereditary element is not known-but it is more common in medium to large and giant breed dogs than small and toy dogs.

The symptoms of canine dysautonomia

The symptoms of dysautonomia in dogs tend to appear very quickly, with most affected dogs going from fine to obviously affected within the course of just a few days. Because the autonomic nervous system is responsible for so many different bodily functions, the symptoms that it presents can be highly variable and far-reaching, which means that your vet will usually have to consider a range of potential alternative conditions as part of their diagnosis.

Some of the most common symptoms of canine dysautonomia include:

  • Hypersensitivity to light.
  • Dilated pupils.
  • Dry eyes and low tear production.
  • Oesophageal enlargement.
  • The third eyelid being visible when the dog is awake.
  • Urinary and/or faecal incontinence.
  • Weight loss and loss of condition.
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea.
  • Breathing difficulties.
  • Weakness and lethargy, including muscle wastage.
  • Coughing and potentially, a snotty nose. However, a dry nose may also be seen.
  • Poor motor and reflex control, particularly in the spine.

Not all of these symptoms will be seen in every affected dog, and this list is not exhaustive.

Can the condition be treated?

If you spot symptoms like those above, you must take your dog to the vet straight away. The condition is diagnosed by a combination of approaches including a physical examination, the dog’s health history, potential X-ray examination, and a range of other tests to examine the heart, eyes and capillaries.

There is no definitive cure for the condition, and because it has such a serious and systemic impact on the dog’s health and comfort, in more severe cases, the decision is usually made to euthanise the dog to prevent further suffering.

However, in milder presentations, supportive care may be given, and some dogs do go on to make a full recovery, although this is very slow and can take up to a year. Some dogs will mainly recover but will still have some problems for the remainder of their lives-ultimately, the prognosis is very variable, and this is a serious condition that often proves fatal.

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