Ataxia in Dogs

white dog running

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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.

What is Ataxia in Dogs?

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

  • Proprioception Issues - Proprioception is the innate sense of knowing where your limbs are. A lack of proprioception can result in ataxia. This type of ataxia is usually a result of a spinal cord issue such as a tumor, a bulging disk, or a nerve issue.
  • Vestibular Syndrome - Having to do with a dog's ability to balance, 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.

The inability to properly place a foot on the ground when walking is another sign of ataxia. This may result in a dog knuckling its feet and dragging its toes on the ground. Since a dog with ataxia is having difficulty knowing exactly where its feet are, it is unable to flip them over and walk on them normally so it can cause damage to the feet as they scrape on the ground.

Finally, some dogs with ataxia don't knuckle their toes but their foot placement is exaggerated. This is similar to a person who has depth perception issues or doesn't realize there is a step down and takes a large, exaggerated step to reach the ground.

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 (tumors, trauma, inflammation, embolism, structural abnormality, etc.)
  • 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.