What Is Cerebellar Ataxia in Dogs and Cats? A Difficult-to-Treat Brain Condition That Affects Balance

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Neurological disorders in dogs and cats can be quite difficult to cope with. When the brain is affected, so is everything else, affecting your pet's quality of life. Find out all about this brain disease here and the options available for pet parents.

Ataxia is a frightening condition that can cause your dog or cat to lose balance and coordination, shake, and suddenly collapse. There are three types of ataxia -- vestibular, sensory (proprioceptive), and cerebellar -- each with different causes and symptoms. Here we will look at the causes, symptoms, and treatment of the cerebellar type, which is often the most difficult to manage.

Causes of Cerebellar Ataxia in Dogs and Cats

In both humans and animals, the cerebellum is the area of the brain that controls coordination and movement. When this area is damaged, it can result in a loss of coordination, balance, and motor function control. It can also sometimes cause cognitive impairment.

Damage to the cerebellum can be caused by a brain tumor or brain infection, however it is most commonly the result of a congenital or hereditary defect that destroys cells in the cerebellum.

When this condition is inherited, it is through a recessive gene. This means that both of the animal’s parents must carry the defective gene in order to pass on the disease. However, an animal can inherit one copy of the defective gene and one copy of the normal gene and not show symptoms, but can pass on a copy of the defective gene to future offspring.

Symptoms of Cerebellar Ataxia in Dogs and Cats

The symptoms of cerebellar ataxia appear progressively over the course of years or months. In general, animals do not begin showing symptoms until around two years of age.

The most common symptoms of cerebellar ataxia include:

  • Swaying
  • Abnormal walking (e.g., taking large steps)
  • Loss of coordination
  • Tremors in head and body
  • Falling
  • Weakness
  • Rapid eye and head movement

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Treatment for Cerebellar Ataxia in Dogs and Cats

If you suspect that your pet is suffering from cerebellar ataxia, contact your veterinarian. While there is no test that can definitely diagnose the condition, your veterinarian will perform a number of tests to try to identify the cause of your pet’s symptoms. These tests may include blood work, urinalysis, an electrolyte panel, and imaging -- such as x-rays or a CT scan -- to determine the location of the disease. Other tests may be ordered depending on what your veterinarian discovers during initial testing.

Treatment for cerebellar ataxia will depend on the cause. If a brain infection or tumor is to blame, treatment options may include medications or surgery. However, there is no cure for ataxia caused by a congenital or hereditary defect. In these cases, supportive treatment is the only option, and it serves simply to make your pet more comfortable.

Supportive treatment options may include therapies and/or certain medications. However, never give your pet any medication without first consulting your veterinarian. Some medications -- such as anti-seizure medications -- can actually make the condition worse.

Pets with cerebellar ataxia should also be monitored closely, as the weakness and unsteadiness that are hallmarks of the disease put your pet at greater risk for injury.

Some pets with congenital or hereditary ataxia may be able to live a relatively normal -- albeit off balance -- life. Others pets may be more seriously affected, resulting in a very bad quality of life that warrants a discussion with your veterinarian about euthanasia.

More on Neurological Disorders

Treating and Managing Pug Encephalitis
Brain Health and Neurological Disorders in Cats
Dog Neurological Disorders and Brain Health
Causes and Symptoms of Meningitis 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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