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How Ataxia in Cats and Dogs Affects Balance and Movement

Changes in Your Pet's Coordination

By February 18, 2014 | See Comments

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    PetCareRx Staff Veterinarian

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A Cat And Dog Laying Together

Has your pet's behavior been a bit strange lately? Perhaps they have been experiencing a severe lack of coordination? They may have a form of ataxia, a sensory dysfunction that can affect both dogs and cats. Learn the other signs and symptoms and what this means for your beloved pet.

It can be alarming to see your pet behaving strangely, especially when the symptoms are physical. Ataxia in cats and dogs can cause pets to wobble, stumble, shake, sway, or suddenly collapse.

Ataxia is a sensory dysfunction, and it often happens as a result of damage to the brain or inner ear, though non-neurological problems can also be to blame. Read on to learn about the causes, symptoms, and treatments of ataxia in cats and dogs.

Causes of Ataxia in Cats and Dogs

There are three types of ataxia: cerebellar, vestibular, and sensory (proprioceptive).

1. Cerebellar ataxia

The cerebellum is the area of the brain responsible for coordination and movement. In pets with cerebellar ataxia, the cerebellum is damaged, and this results in lack of balance and motor control. The damage to the cerebellum is most commonly caused by a degeneration of cells due to a hereditary or congenital defect (one present since birth), though a brain tumor or brain infection can also result in damage.

2. Vestibular ataxia

The vestibulocochlear nerve sends information about balance from the inner ear to the brain. Damage to this nerve can result in unsteadiness as well as strange positioning of the head and neck. This condition can be caused by a fungal or ear infection, poisoning, immune-mediated inflammation, cancer, trauma, or disease. In some cases, the cause may be unknown (idiopathic).

3. Sensory (proprioceptive) ataxia

Sensory ataxia is the result of spinal cord compression which can occur as a result of spinal cord abnormalities, spinal cysts, lesions, nerve degeneration, blood clot, cancer, infection, or trauma. Pets with this type of ataxia often appear uncoordinated and weak.

Symptoms of Ataxia

Symptoms of ataxia that can be seen in all three types include:

Additionally, there are some specific symptoms seen in the different types.

Cerebellar ataxia symptoms:

  • Loss of coordination in legs, head, and neck
  • Swaying
  • Taking large steps/abnormal walking
  • Head and body tremors
  • Falling
  • Weakness
  • Rapid eye and head movement

Vestibular ataxia symptoms:

  • Leaning
  • Strange positioning of head and neck
  • Swaying
  • Falling
  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Stupor
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Difficulty hearing

Sensory (proprioceptive) ataxia symptoms:

  • Loss of coordination (often seen as misplacing feet)
  • Staggering
  • Weakness

Treatment for Ataxia in Cats and Dogs

Treatment for your pet’s ataxia will depend on the cause. If, for example, an ear infection is to blame, that condition will be treated and the ataxia may subside.

Unfortunately, ataxia that is caused by hereditary or congenital defects cannot be cured. In these cases, treatment is purely supportive, meaning that it serves only to make your pet more comfortable. In addition to any supportive treatments that your veterinarian recommends, pets with ataxia should be closely monitored as they are at greater risk for injury.

Never give your pet any medications without first consulting your veterinarian, as some medications -- such as anti-seizure medications -- may make the condition worse.

More on Neurological Disorders

White Dog Shaker Syndrome
Dog Dementia: How It Affects Aging Dogs
What Is Idiopathic Epilepsy in Dogs?

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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Ataxia at a glance

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  • 1Ataxia is a sensory dysfunction that can cause lack of balance, weakness, and loss of coordination
  • 2There are three types of ataxia: cerebellar, vestibular, and sensory (proprioceptive)
  • 3Ataxia is usually the result of damage to the brain or inner ear
  • 4In cases of ataxia caused by heredity, there is no cure, and treatment is purely supportive

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