Drunken Gait/Ataxia in Dogs: Why Is My Dog Stumbling Around?

Dogs, typically, are not drunkards. I’m not counting the odd numbnut who might get the bright idea of getting their dog drink some beer to see what happens.

Drunken Gait/Ataxia in Dogs: Why Is My Dog Stumbling Around?

If your dog stumbles around drunkenly, they’re not likely to sleep it off.

I have experienced uncoordinated, unbalanced gait with my dogs four too many times. The first time, it was after Jasmine’s severe drug-induced hyperthermia.

Jasmine’s ataxia

Jasmine could barely stand at all, and when she did walk she was stumbling and falling all over. The high body temperature “fried” her platelets, her muscles, and her liver. She was in terrible shape and ended up in a veterinary ICU for a week. It took a whole month for her to get back to normal. Our frustration was convincing the vets that her inability to walk had nothing to do with her knee surgeries.

The second time Jasmine had severe deficits in the ability to walk, was with her neck disc injury. In some ways, it looked similar, in some ways it did not. No idea how that happened either. She was fine one day, and she wasn’t the next not having done anything in between.

The last time it wasn’t clear what really happened; As it seemed, a bunch of problems combined into a terminal situation.

JD’s ataxia

JD’s ataxia [the official word for unsteadiness when walking that is caused by a neurologic problem] started subtly in the morning. He returned from a walk before it was over and looked as if he had a bit of a hard time with his hind end. At first, we thought it was possibly a side effect of his meds. The veterinarians agreed. It should have resolved within 24 hours, but instead, things had gone downhill quickly. The hypothesis was an infection or a tumor in the brain, somewhere right behind his eye. We decided not to put him through the process of trying to diagnose something which likely wasn’t going to be treatable.

Cookie’s gait issues

Cookie had a couple of episodes of what looked like partial paralysis of some sort. Out of all things, it turned out being iliopsoas injury.

A common cause of drunken gait is vestibular disease.

This also likely looks the most like a drunken sailor type a walking. The onset is sudden and usually comes with a head tilt and jerky eye movements. Similar symptoms can also be caused by an inner ear infection, trauma, tumors, and certain medications. Or it can just happen for no reason anybody can figure out, idiopathic.

Ataxia caused by vestibular disease is due to a disturbance in the balance center. That is similar to you spinning really fast and fall over when you stop. Your brain doesn’t know which way is up or down.

The vestibular system is composed of parts of the brain and inner ear, so disturbances to either of those places can lead to ataxia.

The failure of the unconscious body awareness, proprioception.

This is a result of poor information flow between the limbs and the brain.

Common causes include:

  • intervertebral disc issue
  • tumor
  • infection
  • immune-mediated conditions
  • or other problem affecting the spinal cord

If the communication lines break down, the limbs are willing to listen but incomplete instructions are getting through.

The problem can lie in the brain itself.

If the command center itself is compromised, the body cannot do its job without the essential guidance. This again can be the work of inflammation, infection, tumor, degenerative changes or structural abnormalities.

Systemic and metabolic issues such as anemia, electrolyte disturbances, and toxic exposures can result in ataxia.

Low blood sugar, low potassium, or anemia, for example, can impair brain function as well the ability of the muscles to execute any commands they might receive. Exposure to toxins and adverse reactions to medications can have similar effects.

Except for vestibular disease, our dogs managed to cover all of these.

As you can see, the potential reasons behind your dog’s incoordination can be many, often serious.

The problem may lie in the brain, inner ear, spinal cord, or elsewhere in the body. The underlying cause can be:

  • trauma
  • inflammatory
  • degenerative
  • infectious
  • autoimmune
  • vascular
  • metabolic
  • cancerous
  • poisoning

Accompanying symptoms may vary but unless your dog has already been diagnosed with an idiopathic vestibular syndrome, see a vet asap.

Related articles:
Idiopathic Vestibular Disease: Phoenix’s Story

Further reading:
Ataxia in Dogs

Categories: AtaxiaDrunken gaitSymptoms

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Jana Rade edited by Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience. Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc is our wonderful sponsor and has been kind to edit and fact-check my important articles.

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