Ataxia in Dogs

Brittany Kleszynski, DVM
By Brittany Kleszynski, DVM on Jun. 23, 2023
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In This Article


What Is Ataxia in Dogs?

Ataxia refers to abnormal body movements and lack of coordination, which can occur when there is damage to a dog’s nervous system (the brain, spinal cord, or nerves). This damage prevents proper communication between the brain and body.

Symptoms of ataxia can vary widely, depending on what area of the nervous system is affected. Ataxia in dogs requires immediate medical attention so your veterinarian can identify the underlying cause and start appropriate treatment.

Types of Ataxia in Dogs

There are three types of ataxia in dogs: proprioceptive, cerebellar, and vestibular. While the signs may overlap, there are key differences:

  • Proprioceptive ataxia occurs after damage to the spinal cord or brainstem. Dogs use proprioception to sense where their body parts are in relation to one another and their environment. Dogs have difficulty in placing their feet and walking normally. They may drag their back legs, knuckle over (drag their front or back legs), or appear unsteady when walking. Proprioceptive ataxia can affect the front legs, back legs, or both.

  • Cerebellar ataxia occurs when the brain’s cerebellum is damaged. The cerebellum’s main function is to coordinate movement and balance. A dog with cerebellar ataxia usually makes exaggerated movements when walking or has a wide stance when standing. In some cases, dogs may sway back and forth due to their inability to maintain balance.  

  • Vestibular ataxia is caused from damage to the inner ear or brainstem. The vestibular system is responsible for balance and positioning; dogs experience a loss of equilibrium when it is damaged. This usually results from an ear infection or severe inflammation within the ear canal. Dogs with vestibular ataxia usually have a head tilt. They may also start circling or falling to a certain side when trying to stand up or walk.

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Symptoms of Ataxia in Dogs

Regardless of the type of ataxia present, most dogs will display at least one of the following signs:

  • Abnormal gait

  • Loss of balance

  • Wide stance

  • Stumbling

  • Lethargy

  • Decreased appetite

Dogs with cerebellar ataxia may display exaggerated movements or tremors when walking, while dogs with proprioceptive ataxia may drag their legs or cross them over one another. Circling, falling to one side, and vomiting are common in dogs with vestibular ataxia. Abnormal eye movements, known as nystagmus, and a head tilt may also be present.

Causes of Ataxia in Dogs

There are numerous causes of ataxia in dogs. Some are mild, while others are severe. These causes include but are not limited to the following:

How Veterinarians Diagnose Ataxia in Dogs

A veterinarian will first gather a history and perform a complete physical exam. If ataxia is present, various tests can be done to determine the underlying cause. These tests include:

  • Otoscopic exam: The veterinarian will look into the ear canal to visualize the ear drum and identify areas of swelling, inflammation, or infection if vestibular ataxia is suspected.

  • Blood work: A sample of blood is taken to check red and white blood cells, platelets, clotting abilities, and internal organ function. This test can identify signs of inflammation, infection, underlying diseases, and toxin exposure.

  • Complete neurological exam: During this test, the veterinarian will assess the nervous system, including posture, gait, nerves, and reflexes, to identify any abnormalities that warrant further testing.

  • Imaging: These tests provide detailed pictures of the nervous and vestibular systems. They help the veterinarian identify the site of damage that is causing the ataxia. Imaging may include an X-ray, a CT scan, or an MRI. These are non-invasive tests, but dogs may need sedation or anesthesia for them.

  • Cerebral spinal fluid analysis: This is an invasive test performed by a specialist in which a small sample of fluid is collected from the spine to test for infection and inflammation that may be causing the ataxia.

Treatment of Ataxia in Dogs

Treatment includes identifying and managing the underlying cause of ataxia. Treatment options may include the following: 

Some dogs with ataxia may require hospitalization for monitoring and supportive care. Surgery may be required if ataxia is caused by spinal cord compression or tumor.  

There are times when ataxia can be resolved with rest and medical care; however, some cases of ataxia are incurable, and the condition can only be managed.  

Recovery and Management of Ataxia in Dogs

Ataxia that is curable will usually resolve once the underlying cause has been identified and appropriately treated. This can range anywhere from weeks to months, and frequent rechecks by the veterinarian will be needed to ensure the dog’s symptoms are improving. Some cases of ataxia, such as those caused from congenital defects, will never be cured.

Dogs recovering from ataxia should have a safe, comfortable space at home to rest. Care must be taken to keep the dog away from any stairs or potentially dangerous objects. Recovering dogs may need help with potty breaks and meals. Pet parents should always listen to their veterinarian’s recommendations and give medications as prescribed.

Prevention of Ataxia in Dogs

Many cases of ataxia in dogs cannot be prevented because they occur due to underlying medical conditions. In these situations, pet parents should ensure their dogs receive regular veterinary checkups, and that they stay up to date on preventative care to identify any health problems early on. Ataxia caused by toxin exposure or medication overdoses can be prevented by ensuring toxic chemicals are out of a dog’s reach, and by giving medications only as prescribed.

Ataxia in Dogs FAQs

Can a dog recover from ataxia?

In certain instances, dogs may recover from ataxia with rest and supportive care. This is when the dog has a treatable condition, such as an ear infection or toxin exposure. However, if there is severe damage to the nervous system, ataxia can progressively worsen and lead to poor quality of life.

What medications are linked to ataxia?

Ataxia can be a side effect of several medications, including gabapentin, metronidazole, and ivermectin. Anesthetics, sedatives, seizure medications, opioids, diuretics, and aminoglycoside antibiotics also have the potential to cause ataxia in some dogs. These side effects should resolve once the medication is out of the dog’s system.

Can ataxia go away on its own without medical intervention?

Ataxia will not resolve on its own. All dogs with ataxia should be brought to a veterinarian immediately for evaluation. The veterinarian can determine what type of medical intervention is appropriate, based on your dog’s symptoms and overall condition. 

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Brittany Kleszynski, DVM


Brittany Kleszynski, DVM


Dr. Brittany Kleszynski is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer who specializes in creating meaningful content that engages readers...

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