Difficulty Walking (Ataxia) in Dogs

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Last updated on
2 min read

Key takeaways

Ataxia describes abnormal movement control of the limbs and body.

  • Dogs with ataxia present with poor coordination while walking, loss of balance, and often appear dizzy
  • Ataxia normally results from dysfunction of the nervous system, and can be triggered by numerous underlying diseases
  • The underlying conditions are categorized according to the location within the nervous system including cerebellar (hindbrain), vestibular (sensory organs of the head and brain stem), and proprioceptive (sensory nerves of the spine and brain stem) ataxia
  • Investigation of ataxia aims to identify the underlying condition and involves physical examination, laboratory testing such as blood work and spinal tap, and diagnostic imaging including MRI scans
  • Treatment varies significantly depending on the underlying disease and prognosis varies similarly
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A closer look: Difficulty Walking (Ataxia) in Dogs

The severity and duration of ataxia vary depending on the underlying disease process.

Developmental conditions, such as cerebellar hypoplasia, are present from birth and ataxia is often lifelong. Infectious conditions, such as distemper or rabies, present with ataxia alongside other symptoms. These conditions are often severe, progressive, and normally fatal. Degenerative conditions like intervertebral disc disease are usually sudden in onset but improve slowly with appropriate treatment. Some conditions, such as middle ear infections or minor toxicities, may cause severe symptoms, but are readily treatable when identified early.

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Possible causes

Ataxia is a feature of many underlying conditions, including degenerative, developmental, metabolic, nutritional, inflammatory, and infectious diseases, injuries, vascular causes, and certain toxins and cancers.

Risk factors

Ataxia is a serious symptom which significantly affects quality of life and is sometimes associated with severe underlying disease. Dogs presenting with ataxia require urgent veterinary assessment to identify the underlying condition.

Testing and diagnosis

Investigation of ataxia focuses on identification of the underlying disease process. Diagnostic tools include:

  • Physical examination
  • Blood work
  • Urinalysis
  • Spinal tap
  • X-rays
  • Ultrasound
  • MRI scan
  • CT scan

Treatment options vary depending on the underlying cause but may include:

  • Medication
  • Surgery
  • Supportive care
  • Palliative care

Similar symptoms

Associated symptoms

Other symptoms sometimes associated with ataxia vary depending on the location of the underlying mechanism.

All forms may include symptoms such as nausea/vomiting, excessive drooling, and confusion about where limbs are.

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