Difficulty Walking (Ataxia) in Dogs

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

A Closer Look: What is 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.

Possible Causes

Ataxia is a feature of many underlying conditions, but common examples include:

Degenerative diseases including

• Intervertebral disc disease • Degenerative myelopathy

Developmental diseases including

• Cerebellar hypoplasia • Chiari-like malformation

Anomalous diseases including spinal cysts

Metabolic diseases including 

• Hepatic encephalopathy • Hypothyroidism

Nutritional diseases including Thiamine deficiency

Cancers including tumors of the brain or spinal cord

Infectious diseases including 

• Middle/inner ear infections • Distemper

Rabies • Toxoplasmosis 

Inflammatory diseases including Granulomatous meningoencephalitis (GME)

Diseases of unknown origin including vestibular disease 

Poisoning including 

Ethanol (alcohol)Xylitol 

Injuries including 

• Head or spinal cord injury • Traumatic disc herniation

Vascular causes including  

• Bleeding on the brain or spinal cord • Fibrocartilaginous embolism

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

Symptoms that sometimes present similarly to ataxia include weakness, syncope (fainting), lameness, and seizures.

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. Depending on the origin of disease, other associated symptoms include

Head tilt • Head turn • Circling

TremorsNystagmus • Strabismus

• Unusual posture • Dragging paws when walking

• Difficulty climbing stairs • Maneuvering around objects, or onto surfaces

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