"What is Hydrocephalus in Dogs?

"What is Hydrocephalus in Dogs?

Health & Safety

A dog suffering from the condition known as hydrocephalus will have fluid building up inside their skulls – the word means water on the brain"" and the result of this is a dog developing an enlarged head that appears to be dome-shaped. Dogs with the condition will suffer seizures, they may go blind and will demonstrate behavioural changes which sometimes can be quite dramatic and worrying. Hydrocephalus is a congenital condition which can occur in both dogs and cats with smaller dogs being more predisposed to developing the condition.

Luckily, if your pet is suffering from a mild case of hydrocephalus a vet will be able to effectively treat them with certain drugs. However, if the condition is severe, then surgery would need to be performed which can prove to be very expensive which is why many dogs do not receive this type of brain surgery.

Hydrocephalus Explained

When fluid builds up inside a dog's skull and brain there are two recognised forms of the condition with the first being known as ""primary hydrocephalus"" and which is a congenital condition. Some puppies are born with hydrocephalus and the cause could be for a few reasons. However, if the condition develops later in a dog's life, it is known as ""secondary hydrocephalus"" and the condition is very often associated with tumours, inflammation or trauma.

However, both primary and secondary hydrocephalus either alter the normal flow of fluid from the brain or block the flow of CSF (cerebrospinal fluid). When it comes to congenital hydrocephalus, there are a number of things that could be responsible for puppies developing the condition which include the following:

  • The mother suffered a prenatal infection
  • She may have been administered certain drugs and medication which are known to cause birth defects in puppies
  • Trauma from a difficult birthing

Puppies born with the condition will have a build-up of fluid in their skulls which in turn puts very damaging pressure on their brains.

Recognising the Symptoms

Puppies born with the condition will show signs there may be something wrong during the first weeks of their lives. Because the bones in their skulls have not yet fully fused, the fluid that builds up means the skull can become enlarged. However, as the skull gets to the point where it cannot get any bigger, the fluid continues to build up which in turn puts a lot of pressure on the puppy's brain. This will cause neurological issues which will normally start to become evident when the puppies reach anything from 8 to 12 weeks old.

Very often, puppies born with the condition tend to be the ""runts"" in a litter. They are also much slower to learn things with a large percentage of them turning out to be almost impossible to house train. However, there are other signs and symptoms to watch out for which include the following:

  • Seizures
  • Head pressing
  • Ventrolateral strabismus – a condition where their eyes gaze outwards and downwards
  • Abnormalities in their gait
  • Blindness

Some puppies will not show any clinical signs they may be suffering from hydrocephalus or they may show symptoms which gradually get worse over time. Therefore, a diagnosis if very often just ""presumed"" and is all too often based on the puppy's medical history and that of it's parents. A physical examination will also determine whether a puppy is suffering from the condition.

Severe Cases of Hydrocephalus

If a puppy is suffering from a severe case of hydrocephalus, a vet would want to take a CT scan or MRI to determine just how much fluid has built up in their brains. With this said, if a diagnosis can be made to confirm the condition, the underlying cause is more often than not never confirmed.

What Breeds are Affected?

Small dogs tend to be more prone to the condition which includes the following breeds:

  • Cairn Terriers
  • Chihuahuas
  • Maltese
  • Pomeranians
  • Toy Poodles
  • Yorkshire Terriers
  • Boston Terriers
  • English Bulldogs
  • Lhasa Apsos
  • Pekingese
  • Pugs
  • Shih Tzus

What is the Treatment?

Because treatment involves brain surgery, it is extremely expensive. It involves a shunt that removes the fluid building up in the sensitive areas of the brain to another safer location. However, a symptomatic treatment can be effective and would include some kind of drug therapy with an aim of reducing the risk of seizures happening. Other corticosteroid treatments may be recommended by a vet to relieve any swelling and inflammation around the brain. Diuretics could also be used as a way to reduce the amount of fluid that does build up in the skull.

However, where this type of treatment is concerned, it only really provides a temporary solution and more often than not, a vet will recommend putting a dog with a severe case of hydrocephalus to sleep as it would be kinder.

Can Hydrocephalus be Prevented?

The best way to prevent this horrible disease from happening is to remove any dogs that may be suffering from the condition from a breeding pool. This would mean taking careful note of the family history of any dogs to see if any offspring suffered from hydrocephalus and if so, the dogs should not be used in any future breeding programme.


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