What Are the Causes of Ataxia in Dogs?

Ataxia is a symptom defined as the alteration of the animal's normal gait, as well abnormal movements.
What Are the Causes of Ataxia in Dogs?

Last update: 27 May, 2021

There’s a huge variety of symptoms in the dog world. Some may not be too obvious if you don’t pay attention, such as changes in urine color or paleness of the mucous membranes. However, other symptoms are obvious to any observer, such as ataxia in dogs or vomiting.

Perhaps the most obvious groups of symptoms are those related to walking and the locomotor system, as any disorder altering the dog’s gait can be easily noticed by the owner. Today we’re going to talk about one of these symptoms: ataxia. Do you know the causes of this condition in dogs? Read on to find out.

Definition of ataxia

Ataxia can be clinically defined as a sign of sensory dysfunction that causes wobbling or incoordination of the limbs, head, or torso of the animal.

Translated into plain language, this means that the dog suffering from this disorder walks as if it had had a couple of drinks too many, or at least that’s the comment that owners usually make when they describe this condition in their pets.

As mentioned, ataxia isn’t a disease in itself, but a symptom of another underlying pathology. In addition, different diseases often share the same symptom, and, in the case of ataxia, it couldn’t be otherwise. For this reason, we’re going to explain all the possible causes of this worrying symptom.

Ataxia makes it impossible for the animal to move properly.

Neurological causes of ataxia in dogs

Ataxia is a fundamentally neurological symptom. Therefore, the diseases and pathological processes affecting the nervous system are the most frequent cause of this alteration.

The adjustment and control of movements and body position is carried out by various parts of the body, and so a disorder in any of them can lead to the appearance of this symptom. Let’s mention some of these disorders.

Cerebellar disorders

The cerebellum is the organ in charge of regulating and modulating nerve impulses, as well as controlling proprioception and body position. Diseases that directly affect the cerebellum can cause ataxia. Among the most frequent are the following:

  • Cerebellar hypoplasia, i.e. an underdevelopment of the cerebellum
  • Canine distemper
  • Neoplasms —the formation of tumors— affecting this organ
  • Granulomatous meningoencephalitis, an inflammatory disease of unknown origin.

Vestibular disorders

The vestibular system is another essential part of the nervous system responsible for receiving, processing and transmitting information related to the position and balance of the animal. Disorders affecting this system can cause ataxia. Among the most common vestibular disorders, we can find the following:

  • Otitis interna or inner ear infection
  • Idiopathic or “old dog” vestibular syndrome
  • Trauma and injuries affecting the inner ear

Diseases of the spinal cord

The spinal cord is responsible for transmitting and modulating nerve impulses. Therefore, an alteration at this level can trigger a gait-related disorder such as ataxia. In this sense, the diseases of the spinal cord that can cause ataxia are the following:

  • Herniated disk
  • Disk protrusion
  • Neoplastic process
  • Discoespondylitis, an infection in the spine
  • Trauma
  • Congenital vertebral malformations
  • Myelopathy, spinal cord compression

Other causes of ataxia in dogs

There are certain types of ataxia that are much more infrequent, but they do exist and must be taken into account when trying to perform a correct clinical examination, or, in this case, when disseminating quality information.

For example, certain electrolyte disorders such as hypokalemia —a lack of potassium in the blood— lead to a series of neuromuscular disorders which, on certain occasions, can lead to diagnosing ataxia. At a neurological level, there’s no problem, given that ataxia is solely due to a deficiency of potassium or other salts.

Likewise, ataxia is a side effect derived from the administration of certain drugs. For this reason, it’s very important for the owner to disclose to the vet the complete history of all medication recently administered to the animal.

In this sense, albeit on an infrequent basis, cases of ataxia in dogs have been reported after the administration of the following medicines:

  • Antihistamines
  • Acepromazine maleate
  • Anticonvulsants
A dog with a sad look on the floor.

As seen, ataxia is a sign that leads, in most cases, to a pathological process involving the nervous system in one way or another. However, there are other circumstances where, in the absence of a neurological disease, the dog can show these symptoms.


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