Pet Factsheets

Incoordination - ataxia

Ataxia, or incoordination, can be due to a variety of reasons. It is important to remember that ataxia in itself is a clinical sign of an illness and there will be an underlying cause that will need treatment.

What is ataxia?

Ataxia is the term used to describe abnormal control of movement of the limbs and body. Animals with ataxia can seem dizzy, lack balance, and have an uncoordinated gait. Ataxia is usually a result of dysfunction within the nervous system. There are three types of ataxia: cerebellar, vestibular, and proprioceptive.

What signs may my pet show?

Cerebellar ataxia affects the coordination centre of the central nervous system. Movement will appear choppy, incongruent, and sometimes spastic. There is often an intention tremor noted, where the animal’s head will move side to side and worsen as it tries to intentionally move to a specific target, like his/her food bowl.

Vestibular ataxia is associated with loss of balance and affected animals will often stagger, appear intoxicated, and may fall to one side or roll. There may also be a head tilt noted with these animals.

Proprioceptive ataxia is associated with weakness in the limbs and you may note “scuffing” of the nails, knuckling over of paws, or slipping out of the limbs - particularly on smooth floors. These animals may have difficulty getting up and getting started for walks and may have limbs slip out from under them or collapse with less grace than normal when laying down.

Why does ataxia develop?

There are numerous conditions that may cause a dog or cat to become ataxic, including brain or spinal injuries, infection or parasitism, inner ear trauma or infection, disturbances in blood pressure, blood loss, vascular accidents, or ingestion of toxins.

Congenital problems of cerebellar development, infections, or inflammatory disease (often immune-mediated origin) affecting the cerebellum can lead to ataxia of cerebellar nature. Vestibular disease is commonly associated with inner/middle ear infections. Tumours, inflammatory disease, and trauma can also lead to vestibular ataxia. Deeper problems of the brainstem (infection, inflammation, vascular accidents, and tumours) can also cause vestibular incoordination.

Any condition affecting the spine (fracture, abscess, slipped disc etc) is highly likely to cause ataxia of the limbs since the nerves leading through the spine will be affected.

How will my vet diagnose the problem?

Your vet will help determine the localisation of the ataxia and formulate a list of differentials and appropriate diagnostic tests needed to confirm a diagnosis. Your vet will collect a thorough clinical history and perform a clinical examination. Blood tests, radiographs, ultrasound, ECG and possibly advanced testing such as CT, MRI, or spinal fluid analysis may be needed.

How will my pet be treated?

Treatment depends on the cause of the disease. For example, infections of the inner ear are often treated with antibiotics and potentially surgery. Deeper brain issues may need referral to a specialists for further diagnostic testing and therapy. Spinal issues will require medication or surgery and strict rest to allow healing.

How can I help my pet?

It is important that you communicate with your vet and provide as much detail of the history as you can. Follow all veterinary instructions and provide adequate nursing care at home. This often means supporting your cat while eating or even assisting them to eat/drink, keeping dry soft bedding, and using slings or harnesses to help them outside for bladder/bowel management. You can work with your vet to develop a home nursing programme that works best for your pet.