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Ataxia is a condition that affects the nervous system, causing incoordination. Though this may sound minor, it is one of the most significant clinical signs that a pet parent should recognize as it requires veterinary care. As a pet parent, you'll want to understand the underlying cause as quickly as possible and provide your dog with the necessary treatment.
Let's take a closer look at the different types of ataxia in dogs and some of the other signs that may indicate your dog needs to be examined.
Clinical Signs of Ataxia in Dogs
Ataxia can appear suddenly or be much more gradual and chronic, depending on the underlying cause. Additionally, ataxia ranges in severity, from mild to severe. Signs of ataxia in dogs will vary according to the cause, but may include:
- Frequent tripping or stumbling
- Uncoordinated gait
- Broad-based stance
- Difficulty getting up
- Leaning or walking toward one side
- Head tilted to one side
- Abnormal eye movements (side to side, or up and down)
- Abnormal eye position
- Lack of appetite
- Change in mental status
When you start to notice some of these clinical signs, take note of your dog's posture and gait, as well.
Types of Ataxia in Dogs
Causes of ataxia in dogs can vary widely, ranging from toxicities and drugs, nutritional deficits and metabolic diseases, to birth defects or spinal cord disease. Most causes can be classified into three main categories:
- Vestibular ataxia: This is often the easiest to recognize. Vestibular ataxia may be characterized by a head tilt, markedly abnormal eye movements and a gait that is closer to walking in a circle instead of a straight line. Leaning, rolling and falling are also common. A common cause (though certainly not the only one) of vestibular ataxia is often called "idiopathic vestibular disease" or "old dog vestibular disease."
- Cerebellar ataxia: This form of ataxia may be presented as odd physical signs. With cerebellar ataxia, the dog is unable to control the rate and range of their gait. This often looks like the dog is taking really exaggerated steps — even as if climbing stairs, only with no stairs present. Cerebellar ataxia is caused by lesions in the cerebellum of the brain.
- Proprioceptive ataxia: Proprioceptive primarily encompasses spinal cord diseases. This category of diseases less commonly affects a dog's head with signs such as a head tremor or tilt, or abnormal eye movements. Physical signs seen with proprioceptive ataxia typically involve the body and limbs, such as unsteadiness, limb weakness, and an inability to right the limbs normally. An example of disease that causes this presentation is spinal cord compression.
Diagnosing Ataxia in Dogs
The word "ataxia" itself describes the physical presentation of muscular incoordination; the dog is unable to coordinate their head, body and legs appropriately. It is not the same as muscular weakness, or paresis, which affects strength. It is also not the same as limping or lameness, which affects a particular part of the body. Ataxia only affects the dog's ability to coordinate its body.
To begin to home in on the long list of causes of ataxia in dogs, your veterinarian will gather a detailed history and perform a neurological exam along with a routine physical exam. The neurological examination enables the vet to determine of the type of ataxia. Diagnostic tests will be recommended after this point.
Prevention and Treatment of Ataxia
Although ataxia can't be prevented with any one solution, keeping your dog in tip-top shape can help prevent some causes, such as an ear infection that develops in the inner ear and causes inflammation and associated vestibular ataxia.
Treatment of ataxia in dogs is also non-specific. The most important part of treatment begins with the accurate identification and characterization of the ataxia type. It's crucial for your vet to appropriately locate the physical lesion in the dog's body responsible for ataxia. Treatment ranges from a little TLC all the way to surgery to remove or relieve the lesion. Hospitalization with fluid therapy and medication to help control the clinical signs of ataxia in dogs (such as vomiting) may prove useful in the early days of diagnosis.
Prolonged veterinary observation will ensure that any orthopedic diseases or diseases causing weakness are appropriately ruled out or not missed.
Good nursing care is often helpful at home until the pet can walk normally. Affected dogs may need assistance getting around and may need to be hand-fed while too uncoordinated to stand. Some dogs may also need help going to the bathroom. All in all, as long as you're keeping your pup comfortable while they are recovering, they'll be back to their fun-loving selves in no time.
Dr. Laci Schaible
Dr. Laci Schaible, is a small-animal veterinarian and veterinary writer. She has won numerous awards for her commitment to pet owner education and is considered a leading veterinary telehealth expert.