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What is Unbalanced?

You notice your normally agile dog beginning to stumble or hold his head in a funny way. The behavior lasts for more than a day or two, plus you notice a lack of appetite in addition to the strange movements. It is possible that your dog could be suffering from ataxia, a disease that affects the central nervous system. In addition to the symptoms mentioned above, you may observe tremors, weak limbs, drowsiness, hearing loss, other unusual behavioral changes such as a loss of energy. Reasons why a dog may be unbalanced may include:

  • Cerebral lesions
  • Middle or inner ear infection
  • Tumor
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Nutritional deficiency
  • Brain infection

If you notice these symptoms, especially a combination of them, it is best to see your veterinarian for further testing. Ataxia is a very serious disease, sometimes fatal.

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Why Unbalanced Occurs in Dogs

A dog can be unbalanced because of a nervous system disorder. It generally occurs in older dogs. The type of imbalance present in your dog will depend upon the region of the nervous system that the disease originates in.

Cerebral Lesions 

Sensory ataxia occurs when the spinal cord becomes compressed over time. You may notice your dog staggering or walking as if she’s “goose-stepping.” Some dogs even experience a significant or total loss of limb strength.  Cerebral lesions near your dog’s spine are to blame for this behavior. 

Trauma, Systemic Disease and Infection

Vestibulocochlear ataxia becomes evident when your dog tilts his head to one side; often your dog will lean unnaturally as if he is “drunk.” Often, the causes of this type of imbalance are related to the ear (middle or inner ear infection), trauma, or tumors in the ear or skull. Other causes of vestibulocochlear ataxia are hypothyroidism, inflammation, and thiamine deficiency. Geriatric vestibular disease may also cause ataxia in older dogs. 

Tumor and Inflammation

Cerebellar ataxia is characterized by full-body swaying, tremors, and head tilting. This type of balance loss can be caused by infection in the brain, inflammation of the brain, brain tumors, or degenerative changes in the cerebellum. Cerebellar ataxia can be inherited and usually becomes evident as cells in the cerebellum begin to degenerate earlier than expected. Signs that your dog is unbalanced include a wide stance, dragging of the feet, and tremors. Depending on what part of the brain is affected, dogs may experience nausea, seizures, and possibly blindness. This form of ataxia is often fatal. 

  • Neonatal cerebellar abiotrophy, a rare form of cerebellar ataxia, affects newborn or very young pups. Affected cells in the cerebellum will begin to degenerate, and symptoms begin to show either at birth or when the puppy begins to walk. Beagles and Samoyeds are two breeds often associated with this form of loss of balance. 
  • Early onset cerebellar ataxia is often found in Collies, Airedale Terriers, Coton de Tulear, Jack Russell Terrier, Miniature Poodle, Irish Setter, and Rhodesian Ridgeback. Beagles and Samoyeds also have an association with this type of ataxia. Symptoms generally present from birth to age six weeks. 
  • Breeds that experience early onset during the six week to six month period include the Australian Kelpie, Bernese Mountain Dog, Bullmastiff, Labrador Retriever and Border Collie.
  • Brittany Spaniels, Gordon Setters and Old English Sheepdogs may experience later onset cerebellar ataxia. 

Often, signs of cerebellar ataxia are often misinterpreted as those of a stroke. Nystagmus, or twitching eyes, is another prominent symptom of this type of imbalance.

What to do if your Dog is Unbalanced

If your dog begins to show consistent imbalance, it is best to get her to the vet for tests. It is important to document your pet’s behavior so that your veterinarian can decide what tests to order. Often, the vet will order blood tests, x-rays, or an MRI to find any potential brain lesions or tumors.

Your vet will want to observe your dog while walking and may possibly ask you to walk your dog up and down stairs. Treatments range widely depending upon the severity of the symptoms and whether or not there is an underlying disease.

Prevention of Unbalanced

Some dogs are able to lead relatively normal lives with an abnormal gait and slight head tilt. Other dogs, those who have tumors or are unbalanced due to genetics, may have to be euthanized. Some pet parents choose to surgically remove tumors; more invasive tumors may be treated with chemotherapy or radiation.

If your dog does not experience severe symptoms, you may be able to make lifestyle changes which increase your dog’s comfort. Keeping her away from stairs, crating when you are away from home, and assisting your dog with balance issues are just a small part of these adjustments you may have to make for your affected pet. She may have to take medicine regularly for nausea. You may also have to assist her at feeding time. Many dogs with ataxia are able to lead fairly normal lives. There is no cure for congenital or hereditary ataxia.

Cost of Unbalanced

Unfortunately, medical therapy for a dog who is unbalanced can be expensive, depending upon the treatment plan you and your vet choose. Some vets will recommend surgery to remove lesions or tumors, which can come at a significant cost, sometimes as much as $12,000. Chemotherapy and radiation may also be an option to treat tumors. Depending on the age and pain level of your pet, you may decide on a pain management plan. If the cause of your dog being unbalanced is as simple as an ear infection or a vitamin deficiency, cost levels will be relatively small. An ear infection can often be resolved for approximately $300.