Ataxia in Dogs – Guide to Symptoms & Treatment

Medical review by K9 Healthcare Council of America (K9HCA). Intended for educational purposes only. Always seek medical advice from your veterinarian.

What is Ataxia in Dogs?

Ataxia is a condition that affects the nervous system, causing incoordination.

Specifically, Ataxia refers to a “lack of coordination or balance” that often occurs suddenly in a dog. It is usually a symptom of an underlying condition affecting your dog’s central nervous system (CNS).

When a dog stumbles repeatedly, loses its balance, or seems uncoordinated–that is called ataxia. It is an indication that the brain isn’t communicating properly with the body.

There are many possible causes of ataxia in dogs that involve the inner ear, brain, or spine.

Dog ataxia
Ataxia is a neurological disorder that causes problems with balance and coordination characterized by a swaying, staggering gait. It can be caused by damage to the spinal cord, the cerebellum, or the vestibular system. This affects the dog’s ability to control its muscles and maintain balance, making them appear clumsy and uncoordinated.

While some of these issues may not be treatable, determining the actual cause will offer more potential options to improve your dog’s Quality of Life.

3 Types of Ataxias in Dogs

Ataxia is a symptom of a neurological dysfunction that can have several different causes.

There are three different types of ataxias in dogs: Proprioceptive ataxia, Cerebellar ataxia, and Vestibular ataxia. Each type of ataxia has its own set of symptoms and causes & potential treatments.

Types of Ataxias in Dogs

1. Proprioceptive Ataxia: Proprioception occurs when the animal’s nervous system has trouble identifying the location of its limbs. (Proprioception is the ability to sense the position of the body & limbs in space). This type of ataxia is primarily related to disorders of the spinal cord but can also be less commonly seen with diseases of the brainstem. This means that the spinal cord can’t send signals correctly to the brain about body position.

Proprioceptive ataxia is usually the result of pressure on the spinal cord, often caused by a tumor, bulging intervertebral disk, or a bleeding vessel inside the spinal cord. It is often characterized by loss of balance, stumbling, swaying, dragging the limbs between steps, and falling to the ground.

2. Cerebellar Ataxia: This type of ataxia in dogs is characterized by an inability to control the rate and range of stepping movements, which is usually manifested by exaggerated stepping, or what veterinarians refer to as a “high stepping” or hypermetric gait. Cerebella ataxia is caused by damage to the cerebellum in the brain which controls coordination and balance.

Dogs that have exaggerated limb movements and head tremors might have an impairment in the cerebellum, the region of the brain responsible for fine motor movements. Cerebellar ataxia in dogs is usually due to congenital defects, inflammatory diseases, or brain tumors.

3. Vestibular Ataxia: This type of ataxia refers to an issue in the inner ear that affects the canine’s perception of their body position and movement. Also called vestibular syndrome or vestibular abnormality, this condition disrupts the dog’s balance and makes them feel dizzy, often seen as a head tilt due to unbalanced equilibrium.

Vestibular Ataxia is characterized by a head tilt, nystagmus (rapid eye movements), and an uncoordinated gait or dizziness.

Type of ataxia in dogs
The symptoms of ataxia in dogs can vary, depending on the type and cause. Symptoms of proprioceptive ataxia include uncoordinated gait, weakness in the hind limbs, dragging or scuffing the paws. Since a dog with ataxia is having difficulty knowing exactly where its feet are, it is unable to flip them over and walk on them normally so it can cause damage to the feet as they scrape on the ground.

What Causes Ataxia in Dogs?

There are multiple causes of ataxia that may occur in dogs, and all affect the nervous system. Any disease process that affects the central nervous system or vestibular system has the potential to result in ataxia as a symptom.

There are many causes of ataxia in dogs some of which include:

– Trauma to the head or spinal cord
– Tumors in the nervous system
– Inflammation of the brain or brain stem
– Infections affecting the brain, such as distemper virus
– Infection of the spinal disks or vertebrae
– Infections of the inner or middle ear (vestibular disease)
Heart disease
– Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)
– Degenerative myelopathy (loss of spinal cord tissue)
– Metabolic diseases (hypocalcemia, hypoglycemia)
– Drugs (gabapentin, phenobarbital)
– Toxins (organophosphate pesticides, mycotoxins, THC from cannabis preparations)
– Middle or inner ear infections
Geriatric vestibular disease
– Red blood cell count abnormalities
– Blood circulation issues
– Respiratory disease
– Hypothyroidism
– Thiamine deficiency
– Electrolyte imbalances (Low levels of potassium, calcium, or glucose)
– Medication overdose
– Congenital abnormalities (known as hereditary ataxia).

ataxia dog. Causes of ataxia in dogs
Vestibular ataxia is often the easiest to recognize. Vestibular ataxia may be characterized by a head tilt, markedly abnormal eye movements and a gait that is closer to walking in a circle instead of a straight line. Leaning, rolling and falling are also common.

Clinical Signs of Ataxia in Dogs

Any disease process that affects the central nervous system (CNS) or vestibular system has the potential to result in ataxia as a symptom. Ataxia can appear suddenly or be much more gradual and chronic, depending on the underlying cause. Additionally, ataxia symptoms range in severity, from mild to severe.

Symptoms of proprioceptive ataxia:

  • Uncoordinated, ataxic gait
  • Weakness in the hind limbs
  • Dragging or scuffing the paws
  • Abnormal spinal reflexes

Symptoms of cerebellar ataxia:

  • High stepping or hypermetric gait
  • Loss of balance and coordination
  • Intention tremors

Symptoms of vestibular ataxia:

  • Head tilt, walking in circles
  • Nystagmus (rapid eye movements)
  • Uncoordinated gait or dizziness
  • Leaning, rolling, falling
Ataxia in dogs causes and treatments.
Treatment of ataxia in dogs is also non-specific. The most important part of treatment begins with the accurate identification and characterization of the ataxia type. It’s crucial for your vet to appropriately locate the physical lesion in the dog’s body responsible for ataxia.

Treatment of Ataxia in Dogs

The treatment plan recommended for ataxia in dogs varies depending on the cause and location of the nervous system disorder.

Treatment ranges from a little at-home TLC all the way to surgery to remove or relieve the lesion. Hospitalization with fluid therapy and medication to help control the clinical signs of ataxia in dogs (such as vomiting) may prove useful in the early days of diagnosis.

If the underlying problem is due to infection or inflammation, medications may be administered for toxicities, inflammation, or infections. In these cases, the ataxia may be treatable with anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID’s) prescribed by a vet. In cases of severe infection or toxin ingestion, the dog may require hospitalization to receive more intensive monitoring & advanced medical care.

Some dogs may require supplemental nutrition to offset potential deficiencies in vitamin B, potassium, calcium, and glucose.

Treatments for canine ataxia caused by tumors and cancer usually involve chemotherapy & radiation therapy. Surgery to remove tumors or to correct spinal abnormalities may even be necessary.

Ataxia in dogs
Good nursing care is often helpful at home until your pet can walk normally. Affected dogs may need assistance getting around and may need to be hand-fed while too uncoordinated to stand. Some dogs may also need help going to the bathroom. All in all, as long as you’re keeping your pup comfortable while they are recovering, they’ll be back to their fun-loving selves in no time!

Pain management, supportive care, and making the environment safe (e.g., preventing access to stairs) are cornerstones of ataxia treatment. Regular reassessments will be scheduled in order to monitor the progress of recovery.

Remember, ataxia in dogs is a symptom; so, it is important to determine the specific type of ataxia present in order to receive an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. If you have any questions about ataxia in dogs, please discuss them further with your holistic veterinarian.

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