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What is Ataxia in Dogs?

Written by Anna Hollisey


weimaraner looking up at camera

Ataxia is a condition which causes dogs to lose their sense of coordination. They are sometimes unable to stand confidently or walk normally; you may notice them swaying or leaning to one side. If you’ve noticed the first signs of this condition, read on to learn the causes, symptoms, and treatment of ataxia in dogs.

There is a huge list of causes for this condition, so it’s important to get a veterinary diagnosis: some can be treated more effectively than others. Broadly speaking, there are three different types of ataxia in dogs. 

  1. Damage to the spinal cord. This usually means that pressure is being applied to the spinal cord – that could be a burst blood vessel, a tumor, or a bulging disk. It can cause limp limbs and head tremors.
  2. A problem with the vestibular system/learn/dog-lifestyle/puppy-head-tilts-what-are-they-and-why-do-dogs-do#:~:text=The%20vestibular%20system%20in%20the%20middle%20ear%20is%20most%20likely%20to%20be%20the%20cause%20of%20any%20health%20conditions%20that%20lead%20to%20excessive%20head%20tilting%20in%20dogs.%20So%20it%E2%80%99s%20important%20to%20be%20aware%20of%20the%20signs%20of%20vestibular%20disease%20like%20an%20infection%2C%20inflammation%2C%20cancer%2C%20or%20vestibular%20damage%20like%20a%20burst%20ear%20drum.. This means the inner ear (or brainstem) isn’t functioning normally, which affects balance. 
  3. A problem in the brain (cerebellum). There’s a certain part of the brain responsible for movement and if a lesion develops, dogs will become uncertain about taking steps – sometimes walking very slowly or overestimating distances. 

In most cases, the first symptom you’re likely to notice is unsteadiness. Dogs become unsteady and may stand with their legs wide apart, tilt their heads, or even fall to one side. 

Ataxia can be severe or mild. Watch out for these symptoms – it’s always worth referring any new behavior to your vet.

  • Weakness of limbs
  • Lack of coordination
  • Unusual trips and falls
  • Dog stands with feet further apart than usual (attempting to stay steady)
  • Struggling to get up
  • Tilting head or leaning body to favor one side
  • Fatigue, lack of appetite, and poor mood
  • Unusual eye position or movements

It’s important that your vet identifies the cause of the ataxia in your dog. This will begin with a thorough physical examination and neurological tests. 

Treatment will depend on the root cause. If, for example, there is a lesion in your dog’s brain, surgery will sometimes be recommended. Sometimes an inner ear infection causes vestibular ataxia, and this can be treated with an antibiotic. In some cases (‘old dog vestibular disease’), ataxia will worsen with age and might require pain management

At home, you can help to make your dog more comfortable: 

  • Support them in getting up occasionally and make sure they get out to urinate. 
  • You don’t need to limit their range but you might want to put a gate across stairways or doorways so they don’t attempt to pass somewhere that they could fall and be injured. 
  • Spend extra time with your dog, as your presence will be reassuring. Try not to leave them for too long and cause additional stress. 

In many cases, Ataxia isn’t preventable. But, to prevent vestibular ataxia, you can take extra care with your dog’s ears./learn/dog-health/why-is-my-dog-scratching-their-ear#:~:text=Caring%20For%20Your%20Dog%E2%80%99s%20Ears Prevent unnecessary ear infection by keeping them clean and checked. If your dog loves to swim, dry them gently – bacteria loves warm, damp conditions.