Ataxia in Dogs

A dog's four legs work in a coordinated manner to get him from point A to point B, but sometimes the legs don't work quite as they should or the central nervous system doesn't communicate properly with the head, body, or legs. This makes a dog wobble and have problems moving around. This uncoordinated abnormal movement is called ataxia, and there are three general causes in dogs. Knowing more about this abnormal movement will help a dog owner better recognize these problems if they occur.

There are three main causes of ataxia that may occur in dogs, but all affect how well a dog can move around.

Vestibular syndrome: Having to do with a dog's ability to balance, the vestibular syndrome is a result of an inner ear issue or brain problem causing a dog to be dizzy and have a difficult time walking.
Cerebellar issues: Cerebellar issues such as tumors, inflammatory diseases, or congenital defects, occur in the part of the brain called the cerebellum and can cause ataxia. This cause of ataxia often appears as an exaggerated or hyperextended stride.

A dog has a distinct way of walking and if this normal gait suddenly changes, this could be a sign of ataxia. Sometimes head tremors and nystagmus (quick twitching of the eyes) may also be seen with ataxia.

Since ataxia is just a symptom of an underlying disease, you should have your dog examined by your veterinarian to rule out any potential issues that could be causing it.

Causes of Ataxia in Dogs

The causes of ataxia vary depending on the type.

  • Spinal cord issues such as tumors, trauma, inflammation, embolism, and structural abnormality
  • Inner or middle ear infections
  • Infection of the vertebrae or disks
  • Vestibular disease
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Head trauma
  • Tumors in the head
  • Infections affecting the brain or brain stem such as canine distemper virus
  • Inflammation affecting the brain or brain stem
  • Thiamine deficiency
  • Metronidazole toxicity
  • Changes or abnormalities to the cerebellum
  • Red blood cell count abnormalities
  • Low levels of calcium, potassium or glucose
  • Blood circulation issues such as heart disease
  • Respiratory diseases

Treatment of Ataxia in Dogs

The treatment plan for ataxia depends on what the underlying cause is. Providing supplemental nutrition with calcium, potassium, glucose, or B vitamins may be warranted for deficiencies of these nutrients, medications may be administered for toxicities, inflammation, and infections, and other specific symptoms may need to be addressed depending on the reason for the difficult movements. Sometimes, surgery to remove tumors or to correct abnormalities may even be necessary.

Aside from treating the underlying reason for the ataxia, physical rehabilitation may also be warranted for your dog.

How to Prevent Ataxia in Dogs

There is, unfortunately, no way to ensure ataxia never occurs in a dog but you can decrease the likelihood of it occurring as a result of some diseases and toxicities. Preventing ear infections by regularly cleaning your dog's ears and keeping medications out of reach of your dog are two ways that you can help prevent these things from causing ataxia in a dog.

Author: Anna O'Brien, DVM

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