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.

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.

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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.

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.

If, after a routine physical examination of your dog, your veterinarian agrees that your dog may be experiencing ataxia, they can move onto a more in-depth examination involving a serious of diagnostic tests. This will include a detailed neurological exam that will help your vet to determine the type of ataxia, which will also help to better understand the cause. A good portion of this testing process will involve ruling out potential conditions and causes. This may be frustrating as it feels as though you aren’t learning anything new, but every potential factor that they can eliminate from the list, the better your veterinarian can understand the situation.

The treatment options for ataxia in dogs vary depending on the underlying cause and the severity of the condition. In minor cases, you may be able to address the cause directly with some careful TLC and medication resulting in a quick and significant improvement.

While these cases may technically be ‘cured’, it is important to keep the cause of ataxia in mind and take steps to prevent it from happening again. For example, if your dog is experiencing vestibular ataxia from inflammation in the inner ear because of an ear infection, you will want to put more focus into cleaning your dog’s ears and preventing an infection from returning. Some dogs are more susceptible to ear infections than others. Have a conversation with your veterinarian about their recommendations to prevent future infections and keep your dog healthy.

Some more serious cases of ataxia may be cured through surgical procedures, removing the physical lesion that is present in your dog’s body causing the ataxia to occur. Leading up to and following the surgery, you can take steps to provide short-term relief from the effects of ataxia, such as medication to calm any nausea that your dog may be experiencing. Your veterinarian may also recommend hospitalization to allow for careful supervision and fluid therapy. While this may be frightening at first, no one wants to see their dog in a situation in which they require a hospital stay, the prognosis for those that are seen as a candidate for a surgical approach like this is very good.

In cases where the underlying cause of the ataxia cannot be cured, pain management and supportive care may be the only options. This can range from the introduction of medications or minor changes to your dog’s lifestyle right up to major life changes such as helping your dog to stand up or walk.

You can make changes to your home to better suit your dog’s changing needs by adding ramps to prevent your dog from using stairs which may lead to falls and injuries. This may also include using ramps for places where your dog would normally jump, like getting up onto the furniture or getting in and out of your vehicle.

If the condition progressively worsens, euthanasia may be required. There is no specific time or signs to indicate that this is the best choice. Most veterinarians recommend monitoring your dog’s quality of life by assessing the things that are most important to him and whether he can continue engaging in these activities. For example, if your dog suddenly has no interest in playing with his favorite toys or can no longer get comfortable sleeping in his favorite place in your home, it may be time to have a conversation with your veterinarian.