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📷 by Tyler Farmer

The essentials

  • Ataxia usually happens because of a lesion — The unbalanced gait you’re seeing is likely being caused by an underlying condition, which could be a brain lesion or tumor.
  • Diagnosis of ataxia requires a trip to the vet — Veterinarians will assess your dog’s symptoms and perform diagnostics/examinations as needed.
  • It’s not contagious — Ataxia is a medical condition that can’t be passed from dog to dog.
  • Treatments vary depending on the severity — Your veterinarian will need to diagnose and address the underlying condition to decide what treatment is appropriate.
  • Ataxia can be a lifelong condition — In some cases, ataxia is irreversible and may require lifelong management.

What is ataxia?

Ataxia is basically an uncoordinated movement seen in a dog that looks like an unbalanced gait. While most dogs happily trot along, a dog with ataxia may wobble, tilt, or stumble around.

There are three types of ataxia that can happen in dogs, and they all cause changes in limb coordination. The unbalanced gait caused by ataxia is a secondary condition. In general, it means that a lesion, cyst, or infection is present in the brain, inner ear, or spinal cord. There’s a problem in the central nervous system or the peripheral nervous system.

Sensory dysfunction (proprioceptive) — Sensory ataxia happens when the spinal cord is slowly compressed due to a pressed nerve, bulging disk, or when a lesion is present on the spinal cord or brain stem.

Vestibular syndrome — Vestibular syndrome is caused by problems in the inner ear and brain. Because of the location of the problem, you may also see changes in your pup’s head and neck movements.

Cerebellar ataxia — Cerebellar ataxia occurs when the part of the brain responsible for coordination and movement, the cerebellum, is damaged. This cause of ataxia can look like a stroke or an extended stride. This type of ataxia can also cause head and neck movement changes.

👉 Ataxia is serious and can point to severe underlying medical conditions, so don’t delay a visit to the vet.

Clinical signs and symptoms of ataxia in dogs

Clinical signs vary slightly between the three types of ataxia. In general, you need to look for:

  • Limb weakness (could affect one, two, or all limbs, as well as hind legs or legs on one side of the body)
  • Drowsiness
  • Nystagmus: rhythmic abnormal eye movements (up and down or side to side)
  • Head tilting to the side
  • Trouble hearing
  • Lack of appetite because of nausea
  • Loss of coordination
  • Nausea due to equilibrium problems
  • Vomiting due to equilibrium problems
  • Tipping, leaning, falling, stumbling, swaying, circling
  • Hearing problems
  • Tremors
  • Dizziness 
  • Behavioral changes (like lack of bladder control or reduced mental cognitive ability)

Causes of ataxia in dogs

The causes can vary between the three types of ataxia but include:

  • Trauma
  • Cancer
  • Brain tumor
  • Poisoning from ingesting toxic plants like Ragwort
  • Fungal infection
  • Blood clot
  • Cerebellar
  • Degeneration of spinal cord or nerves
  • Infectious disease
  • Hereditary factors
  • Fungal infection  

In some cases when veterinarians can’t determine a cause, it is idiopathic.

Diagnosing ataxia at the vet

You will need to give your veterinarian any information you have, including when symptoms started and any incidents that could have led to this condition (like an accident or fall). Be prepared to give your veterinarian a list of symptoms that you’ve observed in your dog.

Veterinarians will assess your dog’s gait, and observe how they walk, stand, and move. They will make sure that your dog is safe as they observe them. Then, they’ll begin with a physical examination to figure out the cause.

The type of tests your veterinarian orders may vary, but they will do neurological, reflex, and limb sensitivity tests. A veterinary team will run imaging tests to determine where the disease is located and if it’s localized to the spinal cord, cerebellum, or peripheral vestibular system.

Veterinarians may refer you to a specialist who can run tests like:

  • Radiographs
  • Myelography (a combination of dye and x-ray to view the spinal cord)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (to view the brain)
  • Computed tomography (CT)

Your veterinarian may also run chest and abdominal x-rays to determine if there are cancerous tumors or other infections present. Vets may also perform ultrasounds to check liver, kidney, and adrenal or pancreatic functions.

Your vet may need to take samples to send for laboratory analysis. In rare cases, a specialist may take muscle and nerve biopsies or urine and blood analyses.

The symptoms of ataxia can look scary, but it’s important to stay calm for both yourself and your dog. 

👉 Loss of balance is scary for your dog, so do your best to stay calm.

Treatments for ataxia in dogs

The treatment for ataxia depends on the underlying condition, the severity of the condition, and the age of your dog. Your dog’s diagnosis will help your vet know more so they can create the right treatment plan.

Vets will focus on eliminating the underlying cause. Depending on the cause, this could be through surgery, radiation, or medication. For example, if a cancerous lesion is to blame, your vet may refer you to a veterinary oncologist to start chemotherapy. Sometimes these treatments will be enough to relieve the symptoms of ataxia.

Unless the underlying condition is life-threatening, dogs can be treated on an outpatient basis. If it’s a hereditary condition, your vet will focus on ongoing treatment to make them comfortable.

However, it’s possible that your dog may have to live with their ataxia symptoms.

👉 Don’t give your dogs any medication without a veterinarian’s permission.

Recovery and management of ataxia in dogs

Dogs can live full, happy lives with ataxia symptoms. Some dogs may be left with a loss of balance, permanent head tilt, or unsteady gait. Other affected dogs may experience more severe symptoms that leave them with an ataxia condition that degenerates over time and eventually incapacitates them.

In general, dogs with ataxia due to ear conditions or toxins tend to improve. Other severe causes like severe ear infections may be more permanent.

If your dog has a lifelong ataxia condition, you may need to make some lifestyle changes. Even dogs with less severe symptoms of ataxia will need support on a daily basis.

In some ways, it’ll be like living with a toddler. Dogs with ataxia need a safe environment and sometimes even constant monitoring. This includes blocking their access to stairs, keeping them contained in a crate when you can’t observe them, and removing access to anywhere a dog could fall and hurt themselves.

Your canine companion may need help eating, so you may need to allow them more time to eat or even feed them by hand. You may need to give your dog medication daily, which you can tuck away in a treat or their food.

Walks will take longer and your pup may need help to support their balance. You might need to decrease or restrict your dog’s exercise. You may need to change your walking routine to shorter walks.

If you notice symptoms increasing, contact your veterinarian immediately.

🚨 In extreme cases, your dog’s health could degenerate to the point where their quality of life can’t be maintained and your pup may need to be euthanized. Sometimes dog owners choose euthanasia due to loss of quality of life. You can always talk to your family and your vet before making this difficult choice.