Comparative Neurology Program

What does cerebellar ataxia look like?

Cerebellar ataxia can encompass a variety of different problems with coordination and balance. These will include a staggering gait often with a prominent goose stepping of the front limbs, crossing over of the limbs, and balance problems.
The goose-stepping movements of the front limbs are referred to as dysmetria (from the Greek meaning poorly measured) or more specifically hypermetria referring to the exaggeration of the movement. A normal dog barely picks the foot up of the ground to move it forward as efficiently as possible. An ataxic dog, on the other hand, may pick the foot past their elbow which means they then have to bring to foot down quickly to get it on the ground before they pick up the opposite foot. A dramatic goose-stepping may be apparent in an ataxic dog
The poorly measured limb movements combine with a similar difficulty keeping the spine stable (truncal ataxia) to produce the typical drunken, staggering gait of a dog with cerebellar ataxia. The dog may do OK when walking a straight line, but will cross the feet, stumble, and weave when making a sudden turn. Click on the picture to see a short video clip showing ataxic movements. Video clip of ataxia
Sudden turns may cause the ataxic dog to stumble.

A tenancy to lose their balance is also apparent when a dog with ataxia makes a sudden turn. Sudden head movements, such as shaking the head, may precipitate a dizzy spell that will cause the dog to lose their balance, stretch out their legs, and fall to the ground. Such dizzy spells may be accompanied by a twitching of the eyes called nystagmus. This twitching can be side-to-side or circular, but is most commonly up-and-down. Such episodes may be misinterpreted as a seizure or a stroke. Click on the top picture to see the response to head-shaking and the bottom picture to see the eye movements.

 

Video clip of vertigo
Shaking the head may provoke a dizzy spell.
Another sign sometimes seen with cerebellar disease is tremors. These differ from the typical shaking that a dog might do if cold or nervous. A dog with cerebellar problems will not shake when resting, If, however, they are trying very hard to make a movement or focus on something, they will develop a wobbling back and forth. This is often most dramatic when they are hungry and trying to focus on their food. Often the tremor results in the dog banging their nose into the food and making it difficult for them to get enough food. Video clip of tremor
Tremors may make simple things like eating a challenge.
In some breeds, the cerebellar ataxia is the only symptom. These dogs can often live with their disability. In some breeds, such as the Kerry Blue Terriers and Chinese Crested Dogs, the disease progresses to involve other motor systems. These dogs become incapacitated by their disease. Still other breeds, such as the Coton de Tulear dogs, the pups are severely affected from birth. Video clip of severe ataxia
Some breeds develop a severe form of ataxia and are incapacitated by their disease.

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