When To Euthanize A Dog With Ataxia

Just like you and I, our dogs rely on their sense of balance to keep them upright and moving freely.

When something disturbs their ability to balance properly, this can lead to a symptom known as ataxia.

The sudden stumbling and disorientation can not only be extremely concerning for the pet owner, but it can lead to potential injury for the dog affected.

Ataxia is not a diagnosis in itself, but rather a symptom of an underlying issue that is causing the loss of coordination.

A wobbly gait can point to serious underlying conditions in your pup, some of which cannot always be cured.

In this article we will discuss the potential causes of your dog’s ataxia, and help you better understand when it may be time to say goodbye to your ataxic dog.

When To Euthanize A Dog With Ataxia

What Is Ataxia In Dogs?

Ataxia is a term used to describe an abnormal change in gait in our canine friends.

Dogs with ataxia will typically experience discoordination, wobbly stature, and even the inability to stand upright.

Ataxia typically has a sudden onset, causing pet owners to scratch their head at any potential cause of this strange change in behavior.

There are multiple different forms of ataxia in dogs, with each form presenting in a slightly different way based on where the ataxia originates.

While there is an endless list of potential causes of ataxia in dogs, the three main categories of the behavior include proprioceptive ataxia, vestibular ataxia, and cerebellar ataxia.

Proprioceptive ataxia refers to a form of ataxia that occurs when the body fails to recognize where the limbs are located.

This makes it extremely difficult for the dog to move, and typically results in abnormal movement.

Vestibular ataxia refers to a form of ataxia that originates due to an abnormality within the ear or brainstem.

Because these structures play a major role in balance, this causes the dog to struggle with abnormal motor movement anytime they become active.

And last, cerebellar ataxia is a form of ataxia that develops as a result of disturbance to the cerebellum.

These dogs are typically fine when they are resting, but will have strange and exaggerated motions when they are active.

Ataxia Is A Symptom, Not A Diagnosis

Before we dive into the details of ataxia in dogs, it’s important to understand that ataxia is not a diagnosis in itself.

Ataxia develops as a result of some underlying factor, and its presence should always lead to further investigation.

Ataxia is a symptom of an ailment that is disturbing normal motor functions, so it should never be treated as a sole diagnosis.

Signs Of Ataxia In Dogs

Ataxia typically refers to an unsteady gait and uncoordinated movements, but there are also a list of symptoms that may accompany ataxia in our canine friends.

To help you better spot ataxia when it develops, let’s list some of the signs that typically go hand in hand with this strange symptom.

  • Decreased appetite
  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Head tilt
  • Head shaking
  • Strange eye movement
  • Wide stances
  • Exaggerated steps
  • Muscle tremors
  • Falling over
  • Walking in circles
  • Swaying back and forth
  • Vocalizations
  • Urinating or defecating without control

If you notice any of these symptoms in your canine companion, we suggest reaching out to your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Even if your dog is not experiencing ataxia, the other symptoms on this list still warrant immediate medical attention.

8 Causes Of Ataxia In Dogs

Now that you understand that ataxia is not a diagnosis in itself, let’s discuss some of the most common conditions that can lead to ataxia in our pups.

It’s important to note that each of these conditions will require an exam from a veterinarian to properly diagnose, so we always suggest an immediate vet visit if these symptoms are present.

Vestibular Disease

Vestibular disease is a common cause of ataxia in our canine friends.

Vestibular disease often develops as a result of inner ear disturbance or ear infections, but it can also be a symptom of a brain tumor.

Dogs with vestibular disease will often develop ataxia, nystagmus (eyes moving side to side), inability to stand up straight, falling over upon movement, and nausea.

Vestibular disease will typically come on suddenly, causing an otherwise healthy dog to suddenly struggle to stand upright.

Many cases of vestibular disease with inner ear involvement can be treated with the use of medication and nursing care, but vestibular disease due to a brain tumor has a poor prognosis.

Severe Ear Infections

Severe ear infections in dogs can cause significant balance complications in some furry friends.

Dogs can struggle with symptoms ranging from mild ataxia to symptoms of vestibular, often varying based on how long the ear infection has been present.

Dogs with an ear infection severe enough to cause ataxia may also experience pawing at the face, rubbing their ears on the ground, shaking their head, and foul odor coming from the ears.

Most ear infections can be treated with the use of antibiotics and pain control, but some dogs will require allergy testing if they have chronic ear infections.

Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy (DM) can lead to ataxia in some struggling pups.

DM is a condition that causes the deterioration of white matter within the spinal cord, leading to an array of motor difficulties to follow.

These dogs will typically develop weakness of the limbs, causing many dogs to stumble over their feet.

Dogs with DM may also experience symptoms including a change in gait, swaying back and forth, knuckling of the hind paws, falling over easily when pushed, and even eventual paralysis.

There is no cure for DM in our canine friends, but the disease progression can be slowed with physical therapy and weight management.

Trauma

Trauma is another potential cause of ataxia in dogs, especially if the trauma impacts the spine or the limbs.

Trauma can cause a dog to appear ataxic for many reasons, whether they are disoriented or even experiencing weakness of the limbs.

Any ataxia or unsteady gait after a trauma can be a sign of serious injury, so we always suggest seeing your vet immediately in these situations.

Brain Tumors

Brain tumors can cause many changes in behavior for the furry friends in our life.

Tumors can put pressure on the brain wherever they are located, often leading to motor difficulties and other abnormal neurological symptoms.

Just like in humans, brain tumors in dogs can be either cancerous or benign in nature.

Consultation with a veterinary neurologist is the only way to get an idea of the specific tumor your dog is experiencing, as well as the potential complications that come along with it.

If a dog has a brain tumor, you may see other symptoms outside of ataxia.

Brain tumors in dogs can cause change in behavior, seizures, vocalizations, confusion, head tilt, change in vision, neck pain, and circling.

The prognosis for brain tumors in dogs will vary based on the type of tumor they have, if it is cancerous, and if it has metastasized to other parts of the body.

Infections

Infections in the vertebrae can also cause ataxia in some dogs.

The spine plays a major role in a dog’s motor function, so any infections within the components of the spine can cause significant changes.

Not only can vertebral or intervertebral infections cause a change in gait, but they can cause excruciating pain as they progress.

Some pups are unable to move due to the pain that ensues each time they take a step.

Infections within the spine can typically be treated with aggressive antibiotic therapy and pain control, but every case is different.

Prognosis often varies based on the agent responsible for the infection, and how soon it is properly diagnosed.

Toxicities

Toxicities can cause an array of abnormal neurological symptoms in the dog affected. Potential toxins are everywhere in the world around your dog, with some even being found in most homes.

Coming in contact with a toxin can cause serious illness in our canine friends, with some exposures being potentially fatal.

Toxicities in dogs can cause ataxia, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle tremors, seizures, changes in heart rate, weakness, and collapse.

If you think your dog has been exposed to a toxin of any kind, we suggest contacting your veterinarian immediately.

No matter the toxicity in question, fast action is essential in offering your dog the best chance at a full recovery.

Weakness

Though weakness is not a diagnosis in itself, it’s important to note that weakness can be confused with ataxia in some furry friends.

Many medical conditions can cause a dog to feel faint or listless, causing them to stumble around due to lack of energy.

Weakness in dogs may present as ataxia, lethargy, discoordination, dragging of the paws, and even collapse.

Weakness is often a symptom of a serious medical emergency, so we always suggest contacting your vet when this symptom is present.

Diagnosing The Cause Of Ataxia In Your Dog

Diagnosing the exact cause of your dog’s ataxia can be challenging in many cases.

Due to the fact that ataxia can occur in so many complicated medical conditions, this often means that your veterinarian will need to perform an array of different diagnostics.

These diagnostics may not even offer your vet a concrete answer, causing them to use these tests as a way to rule out options.

If you bring your dog to the vet because they are experiencing ataxia, you can expect your vet to suggest a few standard diagnostics to start with.

This will typically include a full panel of blood work, full body radiographs, a urine analysis, as well as an in depth physical exam.

If these diagnostics do not offer them a solid answer, they may suggest moving onto more in depth tools such as an MRI, CT scans, and even biopsies in areas of interest.

If your dog does need to undergo more in depth investigations, your regular veterinarian may suggest seeing a veterinary specialist.

This can include professionals such as veterinary neurologists or internists, as they may have the tools to get to the bottom of your dog’s illness.

Can You Treat Ataxia In Dogs?

Ataxia treatment in dogs is achieved by treating the underlying cause of their symptoms.

Because ataxia is not a diagnosis in itself, this means there is always an underlying factor that will need to be addressed to relieve their symptoms.

If a treatable illness is responsible for your pup’s ataxia, there is hope that your dog can have a full recovery.

The best way to treat your dog’s ataxia is by allowing your vet to perform the diagnostics needed to get to the bottom of their symptoms.

Your vet can steer you in the best direction based on their test results, as well as offer you a realistic answer on prognosis.

When To Euthanize A Dog With Ataxia

If you have a dog that is experiencing severe ataxia, you may be wondering when it is necessary to forgo any attempts at treatment and say goodbye.

Some cases of ataxia are a result of an incurable illness, some of which can lead to significant suffering of your beloved pup.

To help you better determine when it may be time to say goodbye to your dog with ataxia, let’s break down some of the details below.

First, it’s important to establish a close relationship with a veterinarian during this process.

They are the only ones that have a deep understanding of your dog’s medical history, and can offer you the most realistic outlook on their health.

Your vet can assess factors such as how long the symptoms have been present, which treatment options have already failed, and whether or not their symptoms have worsened since onset.

Another factor to keep in mind is budget.

While we never want to consider finances when it comes to medical treatment for our dogs, this is a major detail when it comes to handling neurological issues in dogs.

Some illnesses can require invasive testing and lengthy treatments, many of which can be very expensive.

For example, while some brain tumors in dogs can technically be treated, many pet owners choose to forgo treatment due the financial resources and time this will require.

And of course, you will always need to consider your dog’s comfort when determining the right time to say goodbye.

Many severe forms of ataxia are accompanied by other life altering symptoms, some of which will only get worse as their disease progresses.

If your dog’s symptoms cannot be resolved, this can significantly decrease their quality of life.

So at the end of the day, there are three key factors you will need to consider when considering euthanasia in your dog with ataxia; include quality of life, realistic outlook on prognosis, and financial abilities.

If you are having difficulties in working through your decision, you can always seek guidance from your veterinarian.

Final Thoughts

Ataxia in a dog often requires an investigation into the illness responsible for their symptoms.

Ataxia can point to an array of complicated illnesses, so it’s important to follow your vet’s guidance as they determine the best treatment plan.

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