The peripheral nerves relay messages from the body through the spinal cord to the brain. They are spread over the entire body and they allow the body to feel and move consciously. Because they are located all over the body, peripheral nerves are susceptible to more damage from physical injury. Peripheral neuropathy refers to what happens when multiple nerves lose their function, impairing the ability to move or feel adequately. This neurological disorder can affect animals as well as humans. Without proper veterinary treatment, peripheral neuropathy can make it difficult to perform day-to-day activities and reducing an animal’s quality of life.

Causes of Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy occurs when the myelin, a fatty lipid material that protects the nerve fibers, deteriorates. This process is called demyelination and it impairs the ability of the nerve to receive and send out electrical signals. What causes this demyelination varies, but your veterinarian may attribute it to one of the following reasons:

  • Genetics: Hereditary peripheral neuropathy cannot be prevented, but it can be identified and treated early on. Pets whose family members have peripheral neuropathy may have a higher chance of developing it.
  • Immune disease: Diseases like arthritis can cause the immune system to attack the body and damage the nerves.
  • Metabolic disease: When the body cannot process food into energy correctly, the body suffers from conditions like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess fat, etc, that can cause damage to the nerves.
  • Infection: Certain parasites can wreak havoc on the nervous system and immune system. Keep your pets away from feces and wild animals to prevent them from contracting these parasites.
  • Toxins: Overexposure to certain chemicals, such as pesticides, fertilizer, insecticides, and rat poison, can also cause peripheral neuropathy.
  • Physical Injury: Animals who suffer physical trauma are also at risk of peripheral neuropathy. Placing too much pressure on a nerve or performing repetitive motions can also trigger neuropathy.
  • Age: Over time, peripheral neuropathy may occur as myelin naturally wears away.  
  • Vitamin deficiency: If your pet’s diet lacks vital nutrients, its body will have a difficult time functioning regularly and this could affect the nerves.

Mononeuropathy vs. Polyneuropathy

There are many types of peripheral neuropathy, but they fall into two major categories:

  1. Mononeuropathy: When only one peripheral nerve is damaged is damaged, it is called mononeuropathy. Damage to the nerve can result in a tingling sensation, numbness, or pain in the affected area. If the motor nerves are damaged, your dog or cat may struggle to move their body. If sensory nerves are damaged, they may have difficulty feeling sensations such as temperature or pain. In rare cases, the nerves in the internal organs can also be affected, resulting in organ problems.
  2. Polyneuropathy: Most patients with neuropathy are diagnosed with polyneuropathy. This is what happens when multiple nerves are deteriorate simultaneously throughout the body. Like mononeuropathy, it manifests in a tingling sensation and numbness. Your pet may gnaw or chew on its extremities if it suffering from peripheral neuropathy. Because polyneuropathy affects many nerves, your dog or cat may be more prone to serious injuries because they have a more difficult time feeling pain.

Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy

It can be difficult to detect peripheral neuropathy at first because the symptoms can be quite subtle in its early stages. Since dogs and cats cannot tell their owners how they feel, they might display other behaviors to express their discomfort. Here are signs to look out for if you suspect your pet may be at risk of peripheral neuropathy:

  • Weak reflexes
  • Muscle tremors
  • Lethargy
  • Spatial disorientation
  • Dizziness
  • Instability
  • Paralysis
  • Dry eyes, nose, or mouth
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Weight gain
  • Lameness
  • Trouble walking

Diagnosis of Peripheral Neuropathy

Since neuropathy is so difficult to detect without a trained eye, many owners don’t bring their pets until it is too late. That’s why it’s important to get regular checkups for your dogs and cats, so your doctor can detect problems before they progress.

To check whether your pet has peripheral neuropathy, the veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam. They will also ask you about your animal’s past behaviors, medical history, and family medical history. Afterward, the vet may perform a chemical blood profile, electrolyte panel, and urinalysis if there is a suspicion that your pet has peripheral neuropathy.

Treatment for Peripheral Neuropathy

Treatment depends on the cause of the issue. For example, animals who have suffered trauma will need to have their injuries tended to. If the neuropathy is a symptom a disease, that disease will need to be treated. Every animal is different, so treatment also depends on each patient’s unique needs.  

Often, peripheral neuropathy can’t be cured, but it can be delayed and managed. Anti-inflammatory or steroids drugs can reduce discomfort. Physical therapy, acupuncture, and massage can also strengthen muscles that are not affected by peripheral neuropathy and relieve pain. Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet is also essential to preventing the neuropathy from progressing rapidly. Ask your veterinarian what type of vitamins and minerals you need to incorporate into your pet’s diet.