Thursday, March 22, 2018

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog: Drunken Gait, Ataxia

When a person walks around like they were drunk, most of the time they are. Dogs, typically, are not drunkards, even though the odd numbnut human might get the bright idea of getting their dog drink some beer to see what happens.

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog: Drunken Gait, Ataxia

If your dog stumbles around as if he were drunk, he's 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 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 biggest frustration at the time was convincing the vets in charge that her inability to walk had nothing to do with her recent 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 isn't clear what really happened; it was a bunch of problems combined into a terminal situation.

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 had a couple of episodes of what looked like partial paralysis of some sort. That, out of all things, 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, such as when you spin really fast and fall over when you stop as if 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, most commonly caused by an intervertebral disc issue, tumor, infection, immune-mediated, 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 and the cause can be trauma, inflammatory, degenerative, infectious, autoimmune, vascular, metabolic, cancerous or toxic in origin.

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


Further reading:
Loss of Balance (Unbalanced Gait) in Dogs
Ataxia in Dogs
Vestibular Disease in Dogs


Do you know what your dog is telling you about their health?

Do you know what your dog is telling you about their health?

Learn how to detect and interpret the signs of a potential problem.

Symptoms to Watch for In Your Dog

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog now available in paperback and Kindle. Each chapter includes notes on when it is an emergency.

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog is an award-winning guide to help you better understand what your dog is telling you about their health and how to best advocate for them. 

Learn how to see and how to think about changes in your dog’s appearance, habits, and behavior. Some signs that might not trigger your concern can be important indicators that your dog needs to see a veterinarian right away. Other symptoms, while hard to miss, such as diarrhea, vomiting, or limping, are easy to spot but can have a laundry list of potential causes, some of them serious or even life-threatening. 

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog is a dog health advocacy guide 101. It covers a variety of common symptoms, including when each of them might be an emergency. 

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21 comments

  1. Wow, so sorry that JD (and you!) went through this. The blog post offers great information for other dog lovers, though.

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    1. Thank you, Amy. Yeah ... we've been through most of things over time, unfortunately.

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  2. I always learn something when I come to this blog. So many things out there I didn't know to watch for! So far ... no stumbling. But I know now to be vigilant.

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    1. At least you can celebrate all the things your dogs dodged :-)

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  3. So sorry you've had to experience this more than once. Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge with us who are unaware of this vestibular disease.

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    1. Yeah ... destiny seems to send me pups that need my special expertise, I guess.

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  4. It's so important to know about things like this even though, as pet lovers, we hope we never have to experience these symptoms with our own animals. My sister had a beloved senior husky who suffered from vestibular disease. Luckily she was able to recover and live another happy year before she passed from unrelated health issues.

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    1. Not ever needing this information, of course, is the ideal.

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  5. It is so important to notice the signs early on! This post explains the symptoms very well. Hopefully, I will never have to witness these with my pets.

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    1. Yes, the sooner things can get taken care of the better. Most of the time anyway.

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  6. I didn't know anything about this, but it sounds very scaring! What a great resource of information. Thanks for sharing.

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  7. This is so scary, I can't even imagine. The scariest thing is that some conditions can become worse so quickly. Before you even realize that time is up and you need to get to a Vet asap it could be too late. Thanks for this important information.
    Love & Biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

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    1. Yes, it is scary. In JD's case it wasn't, unfortunately, question of being late or early; the prognosis would have been the same crappy if we went it immediately as with going in 24 hours later. Quite often, though, time is of the essence.

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  8. We knew there was a problem with my in-laws dog when he began to stumble around and bark into the corner. We rushed him to the emergency vet and he was having Grand Mal seizures as a result of a brain lesion.

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    1. Yes, with that constellation of symptoms, you know something is very wrong. Sorry about the pup.

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  9. Reading your posts always makes me feel much more prepared for whatever behaviors or symptoms I may see in my dogs or someone else's dog. I'm sorry about Jasmine, JD, and Cookie. That's a steep learning curve. Thank you for sharing your experiences and knowledge to help others.

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    1. Thank you, Irene, that is why I'm doing this.

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  10. As always, I really appreciate the knowledge that you share, because it helps me to be a better advocate for my dogs. They haven't experienced stumbling, but I'll know to take it seriously if they ever do!

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    1. Thank you, Beth, that is the purpose behind my blogging.

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  11. You certainly got educated on this topic in a very personal way that got your attention. Thanks for sharing your insights. One of my Eskies had a brain tumor and could only walk in circles...it's so hard to watch our babies struggle.

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    1. So sorry about your Eskie; it is always heartbreaking.

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