Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Meet the Veterinary Specialists: The Neurologist

Pet Column for the week of March 21, 2005

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Services - Veterinary Profession

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

Brain surgeons aren't just for humans! Our pets can suffer a wide array of neurological disordersfrom epilepsy to brain tumorsthat are treatable with the expertise of a veterinary neurologist.

The nervous system, comprising the brain, spinal cord, and nerves, is a very complex and sensitive system. General practice veterinarians do not routinely perform neurological examinations and treatments, so they typically refer such cases to a board-certified specialist who has an additional 3 years of residency training in veterinary neurology and neurosurgery.

Specialists also have more intense experience in their specific field, since they see specialized cases on a regular basis. Veterinary neurologist and neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Podell, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, sees over 30 neurological cases a week at Midwest Veterinary Referral in Northbrook, Ill., whereas a general veterinary practice may only see one or two neurological cases a month. He explains, "If pet owners choose to invest both financially and emotionally to address a serious neurological problem, they're going to want a veterinarian who does it all the time."

According to Dr. Podell, conducting a neurological examination requires subtle observation and interpretation of an animal's movements, reflexes, behaviors, and responses. Since many neurological problems do not always produce obvious physical signs or lesions, pinpointing the location of the problem is in itself a complex skill.

In addition to performing neurological examinations, neurologists also know how to employ advanced diagnostic techniques using CT (computed tomography) scans, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), spinal fluid collection, and electric nerve impulse tests to diagnose conditions.

"Pet owners often assume that not much can be done for neurological problems, especially in the brain," Dr. Podell observes. "But nowadays our knowledge and equipment are quite advanced. We can identify problems, and we have more options to treat them."

Animals suffer many of the same brain, spinal cord, nerve, and muscle problems that humans face, including seizures, concussions, spinal cord injuries resulting from slipped discs or spinal fractures, and tumors. Many of these neurological disorders are highly treatable. Sometimes a simple drug regimen can make a huge difference. Even some tumors, like those of the meninges (the outer covering of the brain and spinal cord) can often be removed through surgery, and patients can recover and live well for many years.

While some neurological conditions may be relatively simple to diagnose and treat, needing little more than cage rest or a change in medication, severe problems can require a substantial investment of time, energy, and emotion. For those who are able and willing to make the investment, it's comforting to know they have options to help their pet.

Neurologists work closely with other veterinary specialists; they may work with orthopedists and other surgeons to repair vertebral fractures and develop a post-surgical rehabilitation plan, ophthalmologists and dentists to address problems of the eyes and face, and cardiologists and other internists to address systemic illness related to neurological problems.

For more information about the veterinary neurology specialty, or to locate a board-certified veterinary neurologist near you, visit the Web site of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine at and click on "Pet Owners and Public."