What is Ataxia in Dogs: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

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Some dogs are naturally a little bit clumsy, but at what point should you be concerned about your dog’s loss of balance? Ataxia is the medical term for loss of balance and it can sometimes be a sign of a serious problem. Keep reading to learn more about the symptoms, causes, and treatments for ataxia in dogs.

What is Ataxia?

The term ataxia refers to a sensory dysfunction that results in a loss of coordination in the dog’s head, limbs, or trunk. There are three types of ataxia commonly seen in dogs: sensory, vestibular, and cerebellar. Sensory ataxia, also known as proprioceptive ataxia, results from progressive compression of the spinal cord whereas vestibular ataxia is typically caused by damage to the vestibulocochlear nerve. Cerebellar ataxia is a neurological disorder caused by damage to the cerebellum in the brain – the part responsible for coordination and movement.

Related: What Are the 6 Most Common Illnesses in Dogs?

What Are the Causes and Symptoms?

Sensory ataxia in dogs is linked to problems with the spinal cord, so the most common symptoms are related to loss of balance and an awkward or unbalanced gait. Some potential causes for this type of ataxia include structural or developmental abnormality in the spinal cord, tumors of the spine, infection in the vertebrae, inflammation or trauma of the spinal cord, or a medical condition called degenerative myelopathy. Other symptoms of sensory ataxia include misplacing the feet and progressive weakness.

Vestibular ataxia is related to the vestibulocochlear nerve – the nerve that transmits signals from the inner ear to the brain. Damage to this nerve can lead to changes in the dog’s head or neck position as well as problems with hearing. You may notice problems with balance such as tipping, leaning, or even falling over. In cases of central vestibular ataxia, the dog may also exhibit sensory deficits, changes in eye movements, weakness in the legs, and drowsiness or stupor.

Related: What is Laryngeal Paralysis in Dogs?

Cerebellar ataxia occurs when the cerebellum of the brain becomes damaged, often by a brain tumor or some kind of infection. Most commonly, however, it is caused by a congenital or hereditary defect. Symptoms of cerebellar ataxia typically develop slowly over the course of several months or years and they include swaying, abnormal gait, loss of coordination, tremors, falling, and weakness. Some dogs also exhibit rapid eye and head movements as well as head tilting, problems hearing, and behavioral changes or lack of appetite.

What Are the Treatment Options?

The treatment options for ataxia in dogs vary depending on the underlying cause and the severity of the condition. In cases where the underlying cause of the ataxia cannot be cured, pain management and supportive care may be the only options. If the condition progressively worsens, euthanasia may be required. In more minor cases, it may be enough to monitor the dog’s condition and to make adjustments to his lifestyle to accommodate for difficulty with exercise or loss of coordination.

If you notice changes in your dog’s gait or behavior, it is not something you should ignore. Behavioral changes can be a sign of a serious problem and prompt treatment could make a difference. At the first sign of trouble, bring your dog to the vet for a checkup.