The word ataxia comes from the Greek. It means lack of order. It can show up in a puppy or dog, from the age of 3-4 weeks old to its senior years. It is a neurological disorder; producing a steady degeneration of a animal’s motor skills and mobility. In essence, it affects their coordination and balance.
Three Types of Ataxia
The three forms of ataxia are interconnected. They include:
Cerebellar Ataxia is the degeneration of the cerebellum’s cortex. It can and usually does affect other motor skills, most often starting with the head and neck then progresses to the limbs. The puppy or dog may position themselves at a wide stance to keep their balance, goose step their front legs (high step), appears to be stepping over things that are not there, they will in all probability have head and body tremors, and torso sways.
Sensory Ataxia occurs when the spinal cord is slowly and progressively compressed. It affects the dog’s ability to sense precisely where their limbs are and how to coordinate them; causing them to be unable to stand and/or walk with a wobbly, uncoordinated gait.
Vestibular Ataxia begins with the central and/or peripheral nervous system. It occurs when messages from the inner ear to the brain are scrambled. Usually the dog has a misleading sense of movement and/or hearing impairment. To compensate they often tilt their head, lean on people or objects to steady themselves, tip over, fall or roll over. The earliest signs is often noticed when the animal changes in how they move their head and neck.
When it affects the animal’s trunk, they may appear to walk just great, in a straight line, but stumble, stagger or even fall on quick, unexpected turns.
Signs and Symptoms to Watch For
A telltale sign there is a problem, is often exaggerated movements and changes in behavior. Other things to note include: head tilts to one side, tripping, falling, unable to get up, unsteady, wobbling (appears drugged or drunk), legs buckle, confusion, lack of coordination, hearing loss, excessive drowsiness to stupor like behavior, seizures, involuntary eye movements, usually up and down, drooling, facial paralysis, exaggerated steps with front legs, depression, when walking, (high-stepping or goose steps), crossing of limbs while walking, vertigo, avoids stairs and dark corners, unable to focus on task, lack of appetite, nausea, vomiting (due to motion sickness), and coma.
Most often, when the dog is at rest, or when they can focus visually on something on the horizon, the symptoms are not displayed or are not as pronounced.
Sources and Causes
The root sources of a puppy or dog’s ataxia are believed to be from: a genetic disorder (both parents carry the recessive gene), toxins, trauma, virus, seizures, ear infections, medications such as anti-seizure medications containing potassium bromide and phenobarbital. A growing number of veterinarians believe there may be a connection with dogs that have vestibular ataxia, to those that have received the antibiotics streptomycin, aminoglycoside and gentamicin.
Who Can Get Ataxia?
Puppies can be born with it, particularly should both parents be carriers of the recessive gene that causes it. Symptoms may be obvious in as early as 3-4 weeks of age. Others may develop it a bit later in life, and there are those who get it as late as their senior years, where it is referred to as Old Dog Vestibular Syndrome.
No breed is immune to ataxia. However, it most commonly it appears in: Airedale, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Australian Kelpie, Border Collie, Brittany Spaniel, Chinese Crested, Coton de Tulear, English Pointer, Kerry Blue Terrier, Golden Retriever, Gordon Setter, hounds (all types), Jack Russell Terrier, Labrador Retriever, Miniature Poodle, Miniature Schnauzer, Old English Sheepdog, Parson Terrier, Rough Coat Collie.
Currently there is no cure for ataxia. There are measures you can take to maintain the quality of your pet’s life, for as long as possible. Depending on how severe your individual case is or how quickly the disease progresses. Interestingly, older dogs seem to respond quite well from their particular version of the disorder. They may not act like puppies again, but they can often regain some of their former self.
Following a physical examination, concentrating on your dog’s medical history, known history of their parentage, the dog’s age, time of onset, how quickly the disorder has progressed, and blood work, your veterinarian will refer you to a neurologist should they believe your dog may have ataxia. The neurologist will most likely do a CT scan, MRI and draw spinal fluid, before offering you their diagnosis and recommendations for further plans of action or that final difficult decision.
What You Can Do To Help Your Dog
If your dog is suffering from ataxia, try to keep them from slippery flooring such as tile and hardwood. Even something as small as a scatter rug or mat, will help them get a grip while trying to stand. In the winter, try to avoid icy areas.
Keeping their muscles toned up is imperative. Make lengths of walks and types of exercise reasonable. Stop often, to give your dog a chance to rest. Swimming is a wonderful way to exercise and tone up your pet, without stressing the limbs. Be sure you’re in the pool to support and encourage them.
If possible, avoid stairs or carry them up and down.
Leave a small light on at night or in darker areas of the house, to help them navigate their way around.
Crate them, if they are to be left unsupervised for any great length of time. It will reduce the odds of them getting injured.
Basically, just be there for them, to assist whenever they need you.
Bottom line: The rate of progression and its severity will be the determining factor on how you treat this disease. Talk to your veterinarian and neurologist. Ask the hard questions.
Whenever possible, find out if a DNA test has been performed for ataxia, on both parents of a prospective puppy. Remember, it is a recessive gene; if both parents have it; odds are eventually you will be faced with this problem.
Neuter or spay a carrier. Do not breed a dog that you know is the carrier of that gene. It will only perpetuate the disorder.
Make life as comfortable as possible, for as long as you can for your dog. It may take a bit more effort and sacrifice on your part, however your pet will appreciate it.