Adult dog tired resting beside owner from a walk

Ataxia in Dogs (Loss of Balance): Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

If your pup suddenly seems uncoordinated, like she's losing her balance and even seems to be walking and acting like she's drunk then obviously it's a cause for concern. While her symptoms could indicate a number of things, one may be a condition called ataxia, something that can affect a dog quickly, at any age and for several reasons.

Ataxia needs to be diagnosed by a vet, but to help you understand what it is, what to look for if you suspect your pup might be afflicted and what to expect from treatment we are going to take a closer look at what is a scary, but common, affliction in dogs.

What is Ataxia?

The term ataxia - and it can be used for humans and other animals as well as dogs- is used to describe a loss of coordination due to a sensory dysfunction. Different parts of the body can be affected and ataxia in dogs is diagnosed in three different forms: proprioception, vestibular syndrome, and cerebellar ataxia.

These can be categorized as follows:

Proprioception: The term Proprioception describes the sense we are all - including dogs - born with that tells us -or rather our brain does - where our limbs are. The loss of this ability can result in ataxia.

Vestibular syndrome: This term describes a loss of the ability to balance. It can manifest itself as a wobbly walk or in the kind of stumbling you'd expect from someone who had a bit too much to drink, something dogs don't usually do.

Cerebellar issues: This is a medical term given to a group of problems found in the cerebellum in the brain and it includes tumors, inflammatory disease and genetic defects. Any of these can lead to a form of ataxia in dogs characterized by an oddly exaggerated or obviously hyperextended stride when they walk or run.

What Causes Ataxia in Dogs?

Cute beagle lying on the carpet at home

Ataxia in dogs, as you may have been able to tell from the information above, can have many causes, and there is no one 'silver bullet' cause that pet parents can look for, making it one of the harder canine ailments to recognize and even to diagnose.

Some of the most common causes of ataxia in dogs include all the following:

  • Spinal injury, or spinal tumor
  • Ear infections
  • Spinal disc disease
  • Brain tumor
  • Brain stem inflammation, like that caused by canine distemper
  • Low red blood cell count or red blood cell abnormalities
  • Low levels of potassium or calcium in the blood
  • Acute limb injury
  • Head injury
  • Genetic abnormalities in the cerebellum section of the brain

Most of these can also be associated to other canine health conditions, as ataxia is usually a symptom of another problem, one of many reasons why it is so important to consult with your vet if you suspect your pup may be suffering from the effects of ataxia.

What are the Symptoms of Ataxia in Dogs?

Ataxia is a tough condition to spot sometimes, but any of the following should ideally result in your pup taking a trip to her vet to rule out or diagnose ataxia:

Older dog walking around in circles
  • Changes in the way they walk. Every adult dog has a unique way of walking, so any sudden changes may be a sign of ataxia.
  • Confusion when walking. One common sign of ataxia in dogs is hesitation or confusion when they walk, as if they don't quite know where to put their feet.
  • Head tremors and eye twitches
  • Exaggerated steps, as if the pup is having depth perception problems in the way a shortsighted human sometimes does.

Diagnosing and Treating Ataxia in Dogs

The way ataxia is treated, and before that diagnosed, will vary greatly as it is usually the underlying cause that needs to be figured out and addressed. Standalone ataxia in dogs is rare, and usually only the result of a genetic abnormality.

To diagnose your pup's problem, you can expect your vet will perform a full physical, may order blood tests and/or x-rays and MRIs to diagnose what is really causing the ataxia your pup is displaying.

In terms of treatment again, it will be the underlying cause of the ataxia that determines treatment. This may range from diet changes, if the ataxia is being caused by a lack of essential nutrients, to surgeries and chemotherapy if tumors or spinal issues are found to be to blame. In every case pet parents are best guided by their vet who can help determine the best course of action in each individual case.

Often, no matter what the underlying cause was a pup will need a course of physical therapy in order to relearn the right way to walk and balance and regain their normal gait. 

Recovery from and Preventing Ataxia in Dogs

In many cases it is just not possible to prevent the underlying cause of ataxia in canines. However, one form, as caused by a lack of essential nutrients, can be addressed by ensuring that your pup eats a balanced diet that includes the correct amounts of essential minerals, especially potassium and calcium.

How well a dog recovers from ataxia depends on the underlying cause, but many pups, when they receive prompt treatment do make a full recovery and regain their former sense of balance, proper gait and can go back to being the boisterous pup they were before they developed ataxia.

Share Your Experience: Have a story about ataxia in your dog? What caused it and what were your experiences? Anything you can tell us to watch out for or advice you can give is very welcome - in the comments below.

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DISCLAIMER: If you are concerned about your pet, visit or call your veterinarian – he/she is your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your dog. 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.

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