Find out why the nervous system is the most important system in your dog or cat’s body, and how to keep it healthy and functioning properly.
Our dogs and cats are made up of multiple body systems that come together to form the unique individuals we interact with daily. Of all these systems, none is more important than the nervous system. It’s the body’s main communication network, connecting and coordinating all the functions needed for life. That’s why nurturing and maintaining a healthy nervous system during all phases of your dog or cat’s life is so important. This article explains why this is so vital for wellness, and what you can do to support your own four-legged friend’s nervous system.
COMMON DISORDERS OF THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
Neurological disorders can affect small areas of the nervous system — or the entire system as a whole — and have many causes, including genetic disorders and malformations, degenerative disorders, infections, trauma, and neoplastic conditions. Here are a few of the most common:
Hydrocephalus: Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is the clear fluid that surrounds the entire nervous system and gives it support, nourishment, and protection. CSF originates frommultiple sites within the brain, and is absorbed by the body to maintain a proper balance.
In hydrocephalus, this process is impeded due to increased production, decreased absorption, or a blockage. The result can be an abnormal buildup of CSF, which may create increased pressure on the brain and result in behavioral and neurological complications.
Canine cognitive disorder: Very similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans, canine cognitive disorder is an age-related disease. As an animal gets older, the cells within the nervous system begin to age and show signs of degeneration. This is complicated by the buildup of beta-amyloid, a protein that can cause toxic changes to the neurons As neurons die, the brain loses its normal functioning and processing abilities.
Hint: The clinical signs of canine cognitive disorder can mirror those of human dementia and Alzheimer’s — e.g. getting lost in familiar places, increased anxiety, new phobias, irritability, and memory and learning issues.
IVDD: Intervertebral disk disease can be either traumatic or degenerative. No matter the cause, spinal cord damage can occur and lead to varying neurological signs.
- In degenerative forms of IVDD, the cushiony material between the vertebrae can sometimes become brittle and bulge into the cavity containing the spinal cord. This can create pain, pressure, and inflammation, impeding normal neurologic function and leading to an unsteady and wobbly gait (ataxia), with severe cases progressing to paralysis.
- In trauma-caused cases of IVDD, the cushiony material between the vertebrae forcefully enters the spinal canal. This sudden expulsion of material generally creates more severe clinical signs than with other neurological conditions, although the severity of can vary from patient to patient.
Seizures: This is a very complex neurological disorder with numerous causes and varying clinical signs.
Hint: More common causes of seizures include trauma, infections, toxins, certain medications, and nutritional issues.
Seizures can be focal (partial), affecting only a small portion of the brain; or generalized (grand mal), affecting both sides of the brain and the animal’s entire body.
STRENGTHENING AND PROTECTING THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
Because the nervous system performs such an important role in overall health and well-being, it’s important to protect and nurture it through all phases of your dog or cat’s life, especially as he ages.
1. Detoxify the environment
An animal’s environment plays a critical role in their health. This is sometimes overlooked in standard veterinary practices; but in integrative and holistic practices, environment is one of the most important aspects when considering a treatment and wellness plan for the whole animal.
Hint: Both humans and animals are exposed to a constant barrage of environmental toxins. While some are easy to identify, others are more obscure. They can all create major issues for the nervous system.
Providing an environment that’s as toxin-free as possible positively influences the nervous system and its effects on other aspects of the body.
2. Provide a quality diet and exercise
While specific energy and dietary requirements may differ for dogs and cats at different life stages, one thing is certain — a well-balanced, properly-fed, species-specific diet is essential for proper nervous system function. Without it, the neurons will not have the energy needed to perform at optimal levels. Nor will they be able to grow and heal properly.
Adequate exercise is also important for maintaining the nervous system, as well as for overall health. The more active an animal is, the more stimulation the nervous system receives. Exercising can help some behavior issues by keeping the dog or cat active and reducing stress and anxiety.
Hint: Routine exercise and proper diet also benefit cognitive function and help with proper posture and balance.
3. Reduce stress
Stress negatively affects health, including that of the nervous system. Chronic stress can impair the brain’s ability to produce new neurons and nervous system connections. The nervous system may consequently not heal properly and may remain constantly in a heightened state, damaging neurologic health.
Brain health is closely intertwined with gut health. Good digestive health, including a proper balance of microflora in the gastrointestinal tract, means the brain and nervous system can perform at their highest levels, thus improving mood and overall health. Probiotics can be very powerful for maintaining proper gut health, and can also benefit brain and nervous system health.
4. Give them the right supplements
Many vitamins and other supplements can help maintain or improve nervous system function. Some may be found within a high quality species-specific diet, while others may need to be supplemented.
- B vitamins are known for their neurotrophic abilities. This means they help support the growth, maturation, and function of both developing and mature nervous system cells, such as neurons.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are often associated with improving allergic skin disorders and joint issues. Numerous studies show that their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits also improve brain health and nervous system function.
5. Consider acupuncture, chiropractic, and more
Many other options can maintain or improve the function of your dog or cat’s nervous system. Some are centered around pain control and a return to function, while others are primarily used as integrative or all-natural methods of controlling the pain associated with the disease.
- Acupuncture and chiropractic can be utilized for pain control, and with certain neurological conditions to restore function within the nervous system.
- Medical massage such as Tui-na can also provide relief and a faster return to function.
- Other integrative and holistic options can include essential oils, homeopathy, shock wave therapy, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, and energy medicine (such as Reiki). Full veterinary rehabilitation services are also more accessible than they were in the past.
Hint: Another option that has proven very beneficial for treating nervous system conditions is laser therapy. It is non-invasive and well-received by the animal.
SOME PARTING THOUGHTS
Knowing how complicated and important the nervous system is, it can be easy to feel intimidated when it comes to providing it with the proper care. But there is no reason to be “nervous” about the nervous system! Providing the safest, healthiest, most non-toxic environment possible; feeding a species-specific diet; and providing the proper supplements and whole-body care when appropriate will help ensure your dog or cat maintains a healthy nervous system all their life.
Veterinarian Dr. Jared Mitchell graduated from Mississippi State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2004. In 2010, he opened Mitchell Animal Clinic in Mobile, Alabama, and began incorporating holistic modalities into his practice. Dr. Mitchell is completing certification to become a Certified Veterinary Medical Aromatherapist through the VMAA, and plans to achieve certifications in herbal medicine, acupuncture, chiropractic and more.