Help, my dog walks as if drunk, should I be worried? These are reasonable concerns. Witnessing your dog walk around like a drunk without proper coordination and perception is a devastating situation.
Considering the number of issues that can result in such scenarios and the severity of each, seeing the veterinarian is of paramount importance.
In this article we will discuss the drunken walk in dogs. We will go through the signs it may cause and potential underlying causes such as neurological issues, vestibular disease, and ear issues.
Finally, we will go over what happens at the vet and talk about the treatment options based on underlying causes.
Understanding Ataxia in Dogs
Ataxia is an umbrella term used to describe lack of coordination. It is not a medical condition per se, but a symptom usually triggered by an underlying problem in the central nervous system.
Ataxia is frequently accompanied by wobbling, swaying gait, and head tilting. In a nutshell, a dog with ataxia has trouble keeping balance and walks like a drunk, hence the popular term – drunken walk.
Different Types of Ataxia in Dogs
Based on causes and clinical manifestation there are three different types of ataxia in dogs. From an owner’s perspective the exact ataxia type may be irrelevant, but for the vet it will help set the right diagnosis and craft a proper treatment plan.
Type Number 1: General Proprioceptive Ataxia
General proprioceptive ataxia develops when the dog’s nervous system has trouble pinpointing its body’s location in space. The symptom is usually caused by problems within the brain or spinal cord (tumors, bulging intervertebral discs, and damaged blood vessels).
General proprioceptive ataxia is usually accompanied by stumbling, swaying, falling, and dragging the limbs.
Type Number 2: Cerebellar Ataxia
Cerebellar ataxia is caused by problems in the small brain (cerebellum) - the part of the brain responsible for coordination and balanced motion.
It is characterized by accented head swaying or tremors and exaggerated limb movements (hypermetria).
Cerebellar ataxia is usually associated with brain tumors, congenital defects, and inflammatory diseases.
Type Number 3: Vestibular Ataxia
Vestibular ataxia (also known as vestibular syndrome) is triggered by problems located within the dog’s brain stem or inner ear (infections).
Depending on the affected ear, a dog with vestibular ataxia is likely to stumble and fall on one side and exhibit pronounced head tilting (also to one side). Sometimes, both sides can be affected by vestibular ataxia.
Causes of Drunken Gait in Dogs (Ataxia)
There are many different causes of ataxia in dogs. Based on the underlying cause, the ataxia may progress and worsen within a few months or take up to several years (between 3 and 8) before becoming debilitating.
Here is a short overview of the most commonly reported underlying medical conditions:
• Infections or inflammations of the brain and spinal cord
• Trauma to the brain or spinal cord
• Tumors (benign and malignant) of the brain, spinal cord, and ears
• Congenital abnormalities affecting the nervous system
• Degenerative myelopathy or spinal cord tissue loss
• Intervertebral disc disease
• Fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE) or spinal cord strokes
• Middle or inner ear infections
• Old dog or idiopathic vestibular disease
• Toxin ingestions (alcohol, xylitol, marijuana, macadamia nuts)
• Medication side effects or overdoses (metronidazole, gabapentin)
• Nutritional deficiencies (thiamine, calcium, potassium, glucose)
• Abnormal red blood cell counts (too high or too low)
• Hormonal imbalances (hypothyroidism)
• Certain heart and circulation problems
• Certain respiratory conditions.
Signs of Ataxia in Dogs
Based on the cause, some ataxia cases appear suddenly and others gradually. Also, based on the underlying problem, the ataxia may be progressing slowly or fast.
In general, a dog displaying ataxia, is likely to manifest an array of other issues, like:
• Swaying gait
• Head tremors
• Excessive head tilting
• Nystagmus (quick eye twitching)
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• Dragging one or more limbs
• Wobbling and insecure walking
• Crossing the legs while walking
• Weakness in one or more limbs
• Inability to maintain balance
• Staggering, stumbling, and falling
• Exaggerated limb movements (hypermetria)
• Wide-based stance
• Hearing disabilities
• Nausea and loss of appetite.
If your dog manifests one or more of these signs and symptoms, do not wait to see how the condition evolves. In such cases, time is of the essence and the “wait and see” approach could be the recipe for disaster. Call your vet immediately and schedule a visit as soon as possible.
What Happens at the Vet
The ataxia itself is pretty striking and self-explanatory. However, since many medical conditions can result in ataxia, the vet will have to perform a series of tests to determine the underlying cause.
As with any other case, the vet will start by questioning the owner and gathering a thorough history. The more information you can provide the better prepared will be the vet. Some questions may seem unrelated to the current issue, but your vet needs to take a look at the bigger picture.
Once the history part is finished, the vet will proceed and perform various tests.
Test 1: Physical Examination
The foundation of every diagnostic process is the full body (head-to-tail) physical exam. To gather as much information as possible, the vet will take the dog’s vitals, listen to the dog's heart and lungs, palpate the abdomen, limbs, and spine.
Test 2: Neurologic Examination
Since most causes of ataxia are issues located within the nervous system, the vet will have to perform a neurologic examination.
The classic neurological examination includes evaluating three things – the dog’s gait, reflexes, and posture. The neurologic examination provides two important pieces of information – whether the problem stems in the nervous system, and if it does, where it is located.
Test 3: Blood Work
The next test is blood work – complete blood analysis and biochemistry panels. In dogs with confirmed neurologic ataxia origins, the blood work will help assess the overall health profile.
In dogs with non-neurological ataxia, the tests will help search for other potential causes such as inflammation, infections, organ dysfunctions, and electrolyte imbalances.
Test 4: Diagnostic Imaging
Some conditions and abnormalities are not readily visible and may require more specific diagnostic imaging techniques like x-rays and ultrasounds.
In more severe cases, the vet might suggest CT scans or MRIs to visualize the nervous system better. These techniques are quite expensive and are not readily available.
Treatment of Ataxia in Dogs
Can a dog recover from ataxia? Yes, if the underlying issue is treatable and the treatment is initiated early, it is possible for dog to recover and lead completely normal lives.
Can ataxia go away on its own? In almost all cases, ataxia requires specific treatment. However, on rare occasions, like for example, when developed as a side effect of a medication, the ataxia can go away on its own, or better said, once the medication is discontinued.
The exact ataxia treatment therefore depends on the underlying cause. The main cornerstones of the ataxia treatment are:
• Pain management
• Supportive care
• Environmental modification.
To be more accurate, the treatment plan may involve simple medications like painkillers, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatory drugs when dealing with infections or inflammations. They can be given as injections at the vet’s office or orally at home.
Dogs with ataxia due to nutritional deficiencies require adequate supplementation - vitamin B, minerals like calcium and potassium, or glucose.
On the other hand, a dog with toxin-triggered ataxia needs to be hospitalized and under intense care until stabilization.
In cases of bulging intervertebral discs, the vet will recommend corrective surgery and if dealing with tumors, based on their type and location, a multimodal management strategy consisting of several approaches like surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.
Regular check-ups are critical for monitoring the recovery and making modifications and adjustments to the treatment plan if necessary. In some cases, dogs may need rehabs or physical therapy to ensure faster and smoother recovery.
Last but not least, as sad as it sounds, some ataxia causes cannot be treated nor managed. In such situations, when the clinical signs are fast progressing and the dog’s quality of life is significantly compromised, the vet may recommend euthanasia.
As seen, ataxia can stem from various medical conditions – some are more benign while others more alarming.
Can you prevent ataxia in dogs? While it is impossible to protect your dog from every potential ataxia-causing problem such as congenital issues or brain tumors, there are certain scenarios you can prevent through proper wellness care. Here are a few proactive tips.
- Provide your dog with a high-quality diet
- Ensure your dog maintains a healthy body weight
- Keep your dog up-to-date on its vaccinations
- Maintain your dog’s ears clean
- Keep toxic household products always out of reach
- Practice regular vet check-ups so that, with the help of your vet, you can prevent some common ataxia causes.
- Seek veterinary attention early on, before the condition progresses and worsens. This helps significantly increase your dog’s chances of experiencing a positive outcome. Have your vet’s number on speed dial and do not hesitate to call whenever necessary.
How much does it cost to treat ataxia? When diagnosing and treating ataxia the vet bills can pile up quickly.
Depending on the underlying cause and the need of a specialist’s opinion, dog owners should expect to pay between several hundred and a few thousands of dollars.