Difficulty Walking (Ataxia) in Cats

Key Takeaways

Ataxia means “difficulty walking”. An ataxic cat has difficulty controlling the movements of the head, legs, or torso.

• Cats with ataxia appear “wobbly”, referring to general incoordination as well as a characteristic head wobble

• Ataxia comes in three forms; cerebellar, vestibular, and proprioceptive. Each form originates in a different part of the body, has numerous causes and presents differently

Cases of sudden ataxia are often associated with a severe, life-threatening condition, and require immediate veterinary care

• Diagnosing the cause of ataxia requires physical examination, bloodwork, diagnostic imaging, and specialized testing for particular conditions

• Treatment depends on diagnosis, and ranges from antibiotics to surgical intervention

• Prognosis varies depending on the underlying cause

A Closer Look: What is Ataxia in Cats?

Ataxia is differentiated into three types based on the part of the body the underlying condition is affecting: 

• Cerebellar: affecting the cerebellum in the brain • Vestibular: affecting the inner ear or brainstem

• Proprioceptive (sensory): affecting the spinal cord

Difficulty walking can be as mild as stumbling occasionally, or can deeply affect a cat's ability to function in daily life. Ataxia is also categorized as either acute or chronic. Acute ataxia has a sudden onset, and is often related to an inciting event, such as trauma, infection, or toxicosis.

Chronic ataxia builds in severity gradually over time, and is typically related to other chronic diseases affecting the brain, spinal cord or inner ear. Causes of chronic ataxia include cerebellar hypoplasia, tumors, or degenerative diseases. 

Cats that suddenly develop ataxia require immediate veterinary care, as sudden ataxia may be linked to life-threatening conditions. Cats with chronic ataxia require frequent follow-up with a veterinarian to monitor for any changes that indicate disease progression.

Possible Causes

The broad categories of diseases that can result in ataxia include:

• Degenerative diseases, like cognitive dysfunction syndrome • Inflammatory, like inflammatory polyps

• Developmental conditions like cerebellar hypoplasia • Toxicosis or poisoning

• Infection, like feline immunodeficiency virus  • Cancer, like a tumor in the brain or liver

• Nutritional issues like Hypervitaminosis A • Traumatic injury, perhaps to the inner ear or pancreas

• Vascular diseases, like cerebrovascular disease • Idiopathic, where no identifiable cause is found

Risk Factors

Ataxia is quite rare in cats. It has a wide range of possible causes, with a wide range of prognoses, ranging from favorable to poor. If the cause is an infection, which can be treated quickly, ataxia may be resolved in a few days. If the ataxia is caused by a developmental disorder, a cat will live with ataxia for their whole life. In certain cases, such as toxicoses, the underlying cause may be life-threatening.

Testing and Diagnosis

Diagnosis begins with a physical examination to narrow down if the ataxia is cerebellar, vestibular, or sensory in origin. Tests include:

• Bloodwork • Urinalysis • Radiographs • Advanced imaging • Cerebrospinal fluid analysis • Bacterial or fungal culture

Treatment depends on the underlying diagnosis and varies widely. If the underlying condition is incurable, as with cerebellar hypoplasia, ataxia is managed by ensuring a safe environment and making lifestyle accommodations where possible.

Similar symptoms

Ataxia may be mistaken for limping, lameness, or muscular weakness. With these symptoms, the gait abnormality follows a consistent, repeatable pattern. With ataxia, the gait abnormality appears random, and cats seem uncoordinated or wobbly.

Associated Symptoms

Other symptoms commonly observed with ataxia include:

• Head tilt • Head turn • Circling • Vomiting • Excessive drooling (ptyalism) • Rolling • Trembling of the head or body

• Rapid eye twitching (nystagmus)  • Other involuntary movement of the limbs (hypermetria)

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