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Ataxia in Dogs

What Is Ataxia in Dogs?

Ataxia in dogs entails irregular bodily movements and a lack of coordination, typically arising from damage to the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord, or nerves. Such damage impedes the effective communication between the brain and the body. The symptoms of ataxia may exhibit variability, contingent upon the specific area of the nervous system affected. Prompt medical attention is imperative for dogs displaying signs of ataxia, enabling veterinarians to pinpoint the underlying cause and commence suitable treatment.


There are three distinct types of ataxia in dogs: proprioceptive, cerebellar, and vestibular. While there may be some overlap in symptoms, each type has its own distinguishing features:

  • Proprioceptive Ataxia: This type arises following damage to the spinal cord or brainstem. Dogs rely on proprioception to perceive the position of their body parts in relation to one another and their surroundings. Affected dogs struggle to place their feet and walk normally. They may drag their back legs, knuckle over (drag their front or back legs), or exhibit instability while walking. Proprioceptive ataxia can impact either the front legs, back legs, or both.
  • Cerebellar Ataxia: Occurring when the brain’s cerebellum suffers damage, this type affects the coordination of movement and balance. Dogs with cerebellar ataxia often display exaggerated movements while walking or adopt a wide stance when standing. Some may sway back and forth due to an inability to maintain balance.
  • Vestibular Ataxia: Resulting from damage to the inner ear or brainstem, vestibular ataxia disrupts the balance and positioning functions of the vestibular system. This damage can stem from conditions like ear infections or severe inflammation within the ear canal. Dogs with vestibular ataxia commonly exhibit a head tilt. Additionally, they may circle or lean to one side when attempting to stand up or walk.


Symptoms of ataxia in dogs, regardless of its type, typically include one or more of the following indications:

  • Irregular walking pattern
  • Lack of balance
  • Wide stance
  • Tripping or stumbling
  • Fatigue

Reduced appetite

  • Dogs with cerebellar ataxia may exhibit exaggerated movements or tremors while walking, while those with proprioceptive ataxia might drag their legs or cross them over. Vestibular ataxia often manifests as circling, leaning to one side, and episodes of vomiting. Additionally, dogs may experience abnormal eye movements, known as nystagmus, along with a head tilt.


The causes of ataxia in dogs are diverse, ranging from mild to severe. These causes encompass various factors, including but not limited to:

  • Systemic infections like canine distemper virus
  • Intervertebral disc disease, involving the degeneration of spinal discs
  • Infections or inflammation affecting the brain, spine, or ear
  • Tumors affecting the brain, spine, or ear
  • Idiopathic vestibular disease, impacting the inner and middle ear
  • Head trauma
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Congenital defects like cerebellar hypoplasia or liver shunts
  • Nutritional imbalances
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Medication interactions or overdoses
  • Ingestion of toxins such as rodenticides or ethylene glycol


To diagnose ataxia in dogs, a veterinarian initiates with a comprehensive history gathering and a thorough physical examination. If signs of ataxia are evident, the following tests may be conducted to ascertain the underlying cause:

  • Otoscopic exam: This involves examining the ear canal to detect inflammation, swelling, or infection, particularly if vestibular ataxia is suspected.
  • Blood work: A blood sample is analyzed to assess red and white blood cells, platelets, clotting abilities, and internal organ function. It aids in detecting signs of inflammation, infection, underlying diseases, and toxin exposure.
  • Complete neurological exam: This evaluation assesses the nervous system, encompassing posture, gait, nerves, and reflexes, to pinpoint any abnormalities requiring further investigation.
  • Imaging: Techniques such as X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs provide detailed images of the nervous and vestibular systems, aiding in identifying the source of damage causing the ataxia. Although non-invasive, these tests may necessitate sedation or anesthesia for the dog.
  • Cerebral spinal fluid analysis: This invasive procedure, performed by a specialist, involves extracting a small sample of fluid from the spine to test for infection and inflammation potentially causing the ataxia.


Treatment of ataxia in dogs involves identifying and addressing the underlying cause. Treatment options may encompass the following measures:

  • Administration of anti-inflammatories like prednisone
  • Prescription of antibiotics such as clindamycin
  • Use of antifungals like itraconazole
  • Provision of pain medications like gabapentin
  • Implementation of exercise restriction

Application of physical therapy techniques

  • Certain dogs with ataxia might necessitate hospitalization for close monitoring and supportive care. In cases where ataxia stems from spinal cord compression or tumor, surgical intervention may be necessary. While rest and medical attention can resolve some instances of ataxia, there are cases where the condition is incurable, and management remains the primary approach.

Living and Management

Recovery and management of ataxia in dogs depend on the underlying cause. Curable cases typically resolve once the cause is identified and appropriately treated. The recovery period varies, spanning from weeks to months, with regular veterinary check-ups essential to monitor symptom improvement. However, ataxia stemming from congenital defects may remain incurable.

Dogs recuperating from ataxia require a safe, cozy environment at home for rest. Precautions must be taken to prevent access to stairs or potentially hazardous objects. Assistance may be needed for potty breaks and meals during the recovery phase. Pet owners should adhere to their veterinarian’s guidance and administer medications as prescribed.


Preventing ataxia in dogs can be challenging since many cases stem from underlying medical conditions. In such instances, pet owners should prioritize regular veterinary checkups and adhere to preventive care measures to detect any health issues promptly. Ataxia resulting from toxin exposure or medication overdoses is avoidable by keeping hazardous substances out of reach and administering medications strictly according to prescription.

Ataxia in Dogs FAQs

Is recovery from ataxia possible for dogs?

In certain cases, dogs may recover from ataxia with rest and supportive care, particularly if the underlying cause is treatable, such as an ear infection or toxin exposure. However, severe damage to the nervous system can lead to progressive worsening of ataxia and diminish the dog’s quality of life.

Which medications are associated with ataxia?

Ataxia can be a potential side effect of various medications, including gabapentin, metronidazole, and ivermectin.Additionally, anesthetics, sedatives, seizure medications, opioids, diuretics, and aminoglycoside antibiotics may also induce ataxia in certain dogs. Typically, these side effects subside once the medication is eliminated from the dog’s system.

Can ataxia resolve without medical intervention?

Ataxia will not spontaneously resolve without medical intervention. It is crucial to promptly bring any dog displaying ataxic symptoms to a veterinarian for evaluation. The veterinarian will assess the dog’s symptoms and overall condition to determine the appropriate course of medical intervention.

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