Vet Corner: Ataxia in Dogs
Ataxia in dogs can be a symptom of different health issues in dogs. If you have ever seen your dog stumbling and having issues keeping their balance, chances are, they’re suffering from ataxia. If that happens to your dog, you might get worried about their health. That is entirely expected since no dog owner wants to see their best friend sick. If you want to know more about ataxia in dogs, here’s what our experts want you to know.
What is ataxia in dogs?
Ataxia is defined as incoordination in the dog’s nervous system. There are three forms of ataxia in dogs, and they are separated by the place in the nervous system where it occurs. The three forms are called proprioception, vestibular abnormality, and cerebellar ataxia. All forms will usually result in abnormal movement in the dog’s torso, limbs, head, or all three combined.
The first form of ataxia in dogs is called proprioception. It can be best described as “unconscious awareness of where the limbs are located in space.” This form mainly occurs due to pressure on the dog’s spinal cord. It can be caused by a bulging disk or vertebrae, tumor, nerve failure, or a bleeding blood vessel in the spinal cord.
Vestibular abnormality or vestibular syndrome is caused by an inner ear issue or brainstem malfunction. These issues will cause ataxia in dogs.
Cerebellar ataxia means there is something abnormal in the dog’s cerebellum (the part of the brain in charge of movements). Dogs with cerebellum localized ataxia appear completely normal while sleeping. Still, their movements are exaggerated, and they can have head tremors.
What causes ataxia in dogs?
Ataxia in dogs can appear for a lot of reasons. Since it is considered a symptom of other health issues affecting the dog’s spinal cord, everything that causes abnormalities in the spinal cord, inner ear, cerebellum, or brainstem can cause ataxia in dogs. Plus, different forms of ataxia will have different causes. Here are the most common causes for all three types of ataxia;
- Degenerative myelopathy
- Spinal cord “stroke”
- Spine or spinal cord abnormalities (structural and developmental)
- Narrowing of the spinal canal
- Spine instability
- Vertebrae or intervertebral disc infections
All of these issues have to be affecting the dog’s spinal cord to cause this form of ataxia.
Vestibular abnormality causes
- Infection like distemper
- Metronidazole toxicity
- Thiamine deficiency
- Inner ear infection
- Geriatric vestibular disease
- Underdevelopment or malformation of the cerebellum
- Changes in cerebellum
- Metronidazole toxicity
- Brain infection
How is ataxia diagnosed?
The biggest issue with ataxia is that it can be caused by different reasons. More precisely, it is usually a symptom of more significant health issues. That means your vet will have to perform different tests to make sure why your dog has ataxia. Here are the main things vets do to diagnose the exact issue causing ataxia;
- Physical examination - The vet will measure your dog’s vitals and perform a head-to-tail examination. They will check the dog’s heart, lungs, and palpate the whole spine.
- Blood tests - The blood test results can tell your vet if there are any infections or inflammations in the dog’s body. The vet can check the chemical imbalance and determine the cause.
- Neurologic exam - The vet should perform a neurologic exam and check the dog’s gait, posture, and reflexes. This test will help the vet narrow down the affected area.
- Diagnostic imaging - If the vet can’t pinpoint the exact cause, they might recommend MRI, X-rays, ultrasound, or CT scan.
How can I know if my dog has ataxia?
The easiest way to determine if your dog has ataxia is by learning ataxia symptoms. If you know how to spot them, you can take them to the vet and proceed with the tests. The good news is that most owners notice ataxia symptoms even though they are not sure what’s wrong with their dog. The most common ataxia symptoms are;
- “Drunk” behavior
- Dragging their feet
- Swaying irregular gait
- Crossing legs while walking
- Legs set wide apart
- Over-the-top limb movement
How is ataxia treated?
Ataxia is never treated because it is rarely the main issue. It is not like treating a bacterial infection where an antibiotic can help. Ataxia is a symptom of bigger health issues, which means the treatment is focused on solving the problem causing ataxia. Once the vet discovers why your dog has ataxia, they will tell you the best and safest treatment options.
In some cases, ataxia can be caused by infections or inflammations. That means that aggressive antibiotic treatment can help. As soon as the antibiotic gets rid of the bacteria causing ataxia, the problem should go away. Dogs with tumors can undergo surgery. When the tumors are removed, or an injury is fixed, it shouldn’t pressure the nervous system anymore, and ataxia should stop.
Ataxia can be pretty scary, especially to owners that have no idea what it is and what is happening to their dogs. However, some cases are relatively mild and can be relatively easy to cure. There are three different forms of ataxia in dogs, and the exact treatment will depend on the underlying cause. Talk to your vet and discuss the treatment option, prognosis, and necessary changes you have to make in your dog’s life.
World Dog Finder team