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What Is Ataxia in Cats?

Ataxia is the word used to describe a loss of coordination and balance that affects your cat’s head, limbs, and/or torso. Ataxia is caused by decreased sensory function of the nervous system, which in turn can be caused by a wide range of diseases.  

There are three main types of ataxia in cats:  

  1. Vestibular: The vestibular system, located in the inner ear and brainstem, maintains balance and a sense of “up and down.” Vestibular ataxia usually leads to a head tilt, leaning, falling, and rolling, as affected cats cannot get their bearings. Cats with central vestibular ataxia, meaning the brain stem is affected, often are extremely drowsy or sedate. 

  1. Sensory (spinal or proprioceptive): Sensory ataxia is typically caused by lesions in the spinal cord, especially spinal cord compression. This leads to the cat not knowing where his feet are in space, which may cause knuckling of toes, crossing of legs, etc.  

  1. Cerebellar: The cerebellum is the part of the brain that helps control fine motor movement and motor strength. Cerebellar ataxia results in uncoordinated movement of the limbs, torso, and head. Cats with cerebellar ataxia generally have a wide stance and exaggerated, large steps. They may have head and/or body tremors and swaying of the torso. 

Symptoms of Ataxia in Cats

An ataxic cat may look like they are drunk, with a wobbly gait, swaying, and increased drowsiness. They may also have more subtle symptoms, such as a mild head tilt or a curling under of the toes while walking.  

Cats suffering from ataxia may also have an abnormal eye movement called nystagmus, which is caused by an underlying issue with the central nervous system.  

Cats that suddenly become ataxic often roll or fall to one side and have significant nausea due to feeling so unsteady. Cats with chronic ataxia have generally adjusted over time and are less likely to be nauseated. 

Causes of Ataxia in Cats

There is a long list of possible causes of ataxia, depending on whether the condition is vestibular, sensory, or cerebellar. Sometimes a cause cannot be determined even with extensive testing, but it is very important to rule out as many causes as possible so your vet can create a treatment plan. 

Causes of vestibular ataxia in cats include:  

  • Infection, especially feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) or fungal infection 

  • Inflammatory/immune-mediated causes 

  • Toxicity 

  • Middle or inner ear infection 

  • Metabolic 

  • Cancer, polyp, or tumor 

  • Trauma  

  • Idiopathic (unknown cause) vestibular disease 

Causes of sensory ataxia in cats:  

  • Degeneration (breaking down) of the spinal cords and nerves over time 

  • Loss of blood flow to an area of the spinal cord because of a stroke-like event, or a bleeding blood vessel causing a buildup of blood to compress the spinal cord 

  • Birth defects causing the spine or vertebrae to be malformed  

  • Compression/damage to the spinal cord caused by a tumor, a pocket of infection (abscess), or trauma, which can lead to swelling and bleeding in the spinal canal 

Causes of cerebellar ataxia in cats:  

  • Degeneration (breaking down) of cerebellar tissues 

  • Inflammation, often due to unknown causes 

  • Thiamine deficiency was a common cause of ataxia, until the introduction of modern, balanced commercial cat food; however, as more cats are fed non-commercial diets without veterinary supervision, thiamine deficiency is once again increasing  

  • Structural changes such as underdevelopment or malformation of the cerebellum, most often seen when the mother cat was infected with panleukopenia virus while the kitten was forming in utero (cerebellar hypoplasia). 

  • Brain tumor 

  • Infection or inflammation in the brain 

  • Metronidazole toxicity caused by high-dose administration of this antibiotic 

Miscellaneous causes of ataxia in cats:  

  • Anemia (low red blood cell count) 

  • Issues with oxygen getting to the brain associated with cardiac or respiratory disease  

  • Electrolyte disturbances 

  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) 

How Vets Diagnose Ataxia in Cats

If you notice signs of ataxia in your cat, it’s important to see your vet immediately. Your veterinarian will take a thorough medical history and then perform a thorough physical exam to evaluate for neurological (nervous system) abnormalities.  

Once the type of ataxia (sensory, vestibular, or cerebellar) is identified, additional testing such as blood work, a urinalysis, radiographs, and advanced imaging are likely necessary to determine the cause. 

Treatment for Ataxia in Cats

Treatment is dependent on the cause of the ataxia. For example, if infection is determined to be the cause, specific antibiotics may be prescribed.  

Idiopathic ataxia, or ataxia without a known cause, will be treated with supportive care such as anti-nausea medications, and the cat should be kept in a safe, padded environment where they cannot hurt themselves while showing symptoms. Assisted feeding and IV fluids may be necessary if your cat isn’t able to eat or drink well.  

Some types of ataxia cannot be cured, and supportive care may be recommended to maintain quality of life.  

On the other hand, idiopathic ataxia may resolve on its own and never recur.  

Cats that have been affected since birth may not need any treatment as they have developed with the lack of coordination and balance. However, their environments should be made safe so they cannot fall from any height or become injured.  

Ataxia in Cats FAQs

How long does cat ataxia last?

The length of cat ataxia depends on the cause. If caused by something treatable, it may only last for a few days until treatment starts working (for example, an inner ear infection). If a cat is born with cerebellar hypoplasia causing ataxia, it will be a life-long condition. Idiopathic ataxia may improve over several days. Close monitoring is vital to make sure your cat is improving and not worsening.

Can ataxia in cats be cured?

Whether ataxia can be cured is dependent on the cause. If the ataxia is secondary to something like infection, toxicity, or a tumor, it may be curable. Idiopathic ataxia may clear up on its own. Some types of ataxia cannot be treated. Once your veterinarian has identified the cause of your cat’s ataxia, they should be able to give you more information about their outlook.  

How is ataxia diagnosed in cats?

Ataxia is diagnosed via thorough physical and neurological examination by your vet. 

Featured Image: iStock.com/fongleon356

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