Ataxia in Dogs

white dog running

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Unless they are born with an abnormality or have one or more removed in a surgery, dogs have four legs that they use to walk on. These four legs work in a coordinated manner to get a dog from point A to point B, but sometimes, the legs don't work quite as they should or the nervous system doesn't communicate properly with the head, body, or legs. This makes a dog wobble and have problems moving around. This abnormal movement is called ataxia, and there are three main types that affect dogs. Knowing more about this abnormal movement and the different types a dog can get will help a dog owner better recognize these problems if they occur.

What is Ataxia in Dogs?

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

  • Proprioception Issues - This type of ataxia affects a dog's ability to recognize where its legs are when its trying to walk. The unawareness of its own body and the inability to know where it is placing its feet is called a lack of proprioception. This type of ataxia is usually a result of a spinal cord issue such as bleeding, a tumor, a bulging disk, or some sort of 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 - As the name implies, cerebellar issues occur in the part of the brain called the cerebellum and can cause ataxia. This form often appears as an exaggerated stride because the dog isn't quite sure where to place its feet.

Symptoms of Ataxia in Dogs

  • Abnormal gait
  • Head tremors
  • Nystagmus
  • Difficulty walking
  • Unable to properly place feet
  • Knuckling feet when walking
  • Exaggerated placement of feet when walking

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 may also be seen with ataxia, and these are recognizable as head-shaking movements and the jerking or twitching of the eyes.

The inability to properly place a foot on the ground when walking is another sign of ataxia. This usually results 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 really 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 though, acupuncture and 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.