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 to 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 an 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 others, it did not. No idea how that happened either. She was fine one day and wasn’t the next, not having done anything in between.

The last time it wasn’t clear what 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 caused by a neurologic problem] started subtly in the morning. He returned from a walk before it was over and looked like 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 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 that likely wouldn’t be treatable.

Cookie’s gait issues

Cookie had a couple of episodes of what looked like partial paralysis. But, out of all things, it turned out to be iliopsoas injury.

Potential causes of drunken gait in dogs

Vestibular disease

A common cause of drunken gait is a vestibular disease.

This also likely looks the most like a drunken sailor type of 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 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 fast and falling 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.

Other causes

The failure of the unconscious body awareness, proprioception.

This results from 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 get through.

Brain issues

The problem can lie in the brain itself.

If the command center 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 issues

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. In addition, exposure to toxins and medication adverse reactions 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 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.

  1. Zoe Georgiadis

    Thanks for writing this.-
    My dog is already at the vets but I thought I’d ask.
    She’s a cocker spaniel just turned 1 called Isla. She was fine this morning had a walk 10.30 for 1 hour or so
    When we got home she went to sleep on my parents bed. My mum was there too (resting an injury)
    But come 1ish she normally starts following us around for lunch. My mum got up but Isla didn’t follow. She thought Isla seemed particularly sleepy.
    A while later I went to get Isla for food. But she was so sleepy. She wouldn’t get up. I got her up but she stumbled around like a drunk doggy and plopped back down. She was sort of drifting in and out of sleep. She would open her eyes if we said her name loudly but that was it.
    So we have taken her to the vets. They’re running tests checking for potential toxin ingestion or even epilepsy. Keeping her in over night.
    Liver and kidneys came back fine.
    We looked around the house in case she ate some medicine but can’t find anything to suggest that she has. However we have spotted some mushrooms in the garden. They appear to be hortiboletus rubellus which I’ve tried googling but nothing seems to suggest they are the culprit.
    When we got home We also noticed that she peed on the bed where she’d been sleeping.

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