- Ataxia is used to describe a lack of coordination caused by a problem in your dog’s nervous system.
- Signs of ataxia include wobbling, a swaying gait, head tilting, and more.
- It is always a symptom of an underlying injury or illness.
- Treatment for your dog will depend on the cause of ataxia.
Have you ever come home to find your dog weak, stumbling, and struggling to keep his balance? If so, your dog may have been suffering from ataxia, a symptom of many common medical conditions.
It is undoubtedly scary to see your dog acting so strange, but there are steps your veterinarian can take to help your dog recover. First, you’ll need to understand what ataxia is and how it can affect your dog.
What is Ataxia?
Ataxia is a catch-all term used to describe a lack of coordination caused by a problem in your dog’s nervous system. Dogs with ataxia typically have an abnormal swaying gait and difficulty maintaining their balance.
Ataxia is not a medical condition in and of itself, and it always occurs as a symptom of an underlying medical condition.
Types of Ataxia in Dogs
When veterinarians are trying to diagnose the underlying cause of ataxia, it is sometimes helpful to identify the specific type of ataxia that is occurring. Ataxia can generally be broken down into three categories:
General Proprioceptive Ataxia. This type of ataxia occurs when your dog’s nervous system has problems determining where the body is located in space. This is often characterized by swaying, stumbling, falling, and dragging one or more limbs.
Cerebellar Ataxia. This type of ataxia is caused by problems in the cerebellum, which is the part of the brain responsible for coordinating movement. Cerebellar ataxia is often characterized by a swaying head and exaggerated movements of the limbs.
Vestibular Ataxia. The final type of ataxia is caused by a problem in your dog’s inner ear or brainstem. Dogs with this type of ataxia will typically stumble and fall to one side, but sometimes both sides can be affected.
Causes of Ataxia in Dogs
Ataxia does not occur by itself and it is always a symptom of an underlying injury or illness. There are a multitude of conditions that can cause ataxia in dogs, and these are just a few of the most common ones:
- Middle or inner ear infection
- Old Dog Vestibular Disease (also called Idiopathic Vestibular Disease)
- Congenital abnormalities
- Tumors of the brain or spinal cord
- Intervertebral disc disease
- Degenerative myelopathy
- Fibrocartilagenous embolism
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Toxin ingestion
- Medication overdose
- Trauma to the brain or spinal cord
- Infection or inflammation affecting the brain or spinal cord
Many of these conditions are serious and delays in treatment can result in permanent damage. If your dog is showing symptoms of ataxia, it is extremely important to see your veterinarian right away.
Symptoms of Ataxia in Dogs
Depending on the underlying cause, ataxia may appear suddenly or may come on gradually. In some cases, ataxia may be progressive and it will worsen over time.
If your dog is experiencing ataxia, you may notice symptoms such as:
- Swaying gait
- Appearing drunk
- Dragging one or more feet when walking
- Crossing the legs when walking
- Difficulty maintaining balance
- Staggering or falling
- Wide-based stance
- Exaggerated limb movements
These symptoms can indicate a potentially severe problem for your dog. As soon as you notice symptoms of ataxia, it is time to consult your veterinarian for advice.
Diagnosing Causes of Ataxia in Dogs
Ataxia can be caused by many different conditions, so your veterinarian will need to perform some diagnostic testing to look for the underlying cause of the ataxia. Your veterinary visit will typically start with a thorough history. A member of the veterinary team will ask you detailed questions about your dog’s health, behavior, and environment. Then your veterinarian will perform some or all of the following tests:
Physical Examination. Your veterinarian will perform a full head-to-tail examination on your dog. This will include listening to your dog’s heart and lungs, taking vitals, and palpating your dog’s spine and limbs, all of which can provide more information about the underlying cause of the ataxia.
Neurologic Examination. Your veterinarian may perform a neurologic exam on your dog. This includes evaluating your dog’s reflexes, posture, and gait. This type of examination can help your veterinarian determine which parts of your dog’s nervous system are affected.
Blood Work. A complete blood count and biochemistry panel will be performed to look for conditions such as infection, inflammation, electrolyte imbalances, and organ system dysfunction which may be causing your dog’s ataxia.
Diagnostic Imaging. Your veterinarian may recommend X-rays or an ultrasound to further evaluate the underlying cause of your dog’s ataxia. In severe cases, a CT scan or MRI may be recommended to identify the part of your dog’s nervous system that is affected.
How to Treat Ataxia in Dogs
The treatment for ataxia focuses on identifying and addressing the underlying cause of the neurologic dysfunction. Some conditions that cause ataxia in dogs may be treated or even cured with medication alone, while others may require surgery to correct the problem.
In some cases, such as severe infections or ingestion of a toxin, your dog may need to be hospitalized for more intensive care.
Once the condition that caused the ataxia has been diagnosed, your veterinarian will be able to discuss your dog’s treatment options with you.
General Cost to Treat Ataxia
Because so many conditions can lead to ataxia, it is difficult to estimate how much it will cost to treat your dog. Some cases may require advanced diagnostics and referral to a specialist, which can quickly become expensive.
Pet owners should expect to spend anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars to diagnose and treat ataxia in a dog.
How to Prevent Dogs from Getting Ataxia
Ataxia is caused by a wide variety of medical conditions, but some of them can be prevented through good wellness care. Ensuring that your dog eats a nutritious diet, maintains a healthy weight, and stays up-to-date on vaccinations and routine veterinary care can help prevent some common causes of ataxia.
You should also be sure to keep any medications, household chemicals, and other toxins well out of your dog’s reach.
Don't miss our vet-approved pet care tips!
Sign up for our newsletter to stay in-the-know.