Incoordination in Dogs and Cats (Ataxia)



Photo courtesy of Long Beach Animal Hospital. 

Sometimes, you might see your pet walking like a drunken sailor, a comical scene in a piteous sense. If it happens on rare occasion, it is nothing to worry about. When it occurs consistently, it needs to be addressed. The medical term we use for this incoordination is called ataxia.

Ataxia can occur in any age, breed or sex of pet. Its causes are numerous and can range from minor to life threatening. Before a pet exhibits ataxia, it commonly shows signs of weakness in the limbs. We can get an idea of where in the central nervous system (CNS) the problem originates by the type of ataxia: one leg, front legs, rear legs, all four legs or the head. This information in addition to a neurologic exam helps us localize the problem to aid in diagnosis.

There are numerous causes of ataxia in dogs and cats:

  • a degenerative disease in the brain called abiotrophy that occurs in some breeds
  • the panleukopenia virus in a kitten that is infected while it is still in the uterus; this causes cerebellar hypoplasia
  • tumors of the brain or spinal cord
  • distemper and FIP (feline infectious peritonitis)
  • fungal infections that have spread into the body
  • low thyroid, called hypothyroidism
  • inner-ear infections and inflammation, called vestibular disease
  • general inflammation in the CNS
  • trauma to the CNS
  • medications like metronidazole and anti-seizure drugs
  • metabolic problems like low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).

Hypoglycemia in puppies is diagnosed by measuring the glucose level. This problem is easily corrected by feeding normal food or by feeding the dog Karo syrup or 50 percent dextrose. If we are presented with a young animal that is ataxic because of low blood sugar and we are unable to treat it orally, we will administer 50 percent dextrose intravenously.

Ataxia has many different treatments, depending on the cause. Some are simple to treat, like hypoglycemia, and carry a good prognosis. Others are hard to diagnose, not as easy to treat, and carry a poor prognosis.

Our website has information on some of the diseases that cause ataxia in the Diseases Section. Search by the diseases mentioned in the article.

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