Ataxia is a term often used by veterinarians to describe the way an animal walks. We often describe it as “falling over” or “wobbly walking”. But what exactly is ataxia? What are some common causes of ataxia in your cat and should you seek treatment?
Definition of Ataxia
“Ataxia means without coordination. People with ataxia lose muscle control in their arms and legs. This may lead to a lack of balance, coordination, and trouble walking.” While this is a definition from Johns Hopkins in reference to humans, it is very similar to our definition in veterinary medicine. Ataxia in general refers to incoordination. Think of a cat that is unaware of their limbs in space. The cat doesn’t know where its’ legs are in relation to their body and can produce uncoordinated movements, especially while attempting to walk and/or move.
Depending on the type of ataxia, what area(s) of the body are affected and the cause, abnormal movements in a cat can appear similar to a person who has vertigo. The patient is often nauseous, unable to focus their eyes and falls over with attempts at trying to walk. We assume some causes of ataxia make the cat feel dizzy, though this is extrapolated from humans.
Congenital Causes of Ataxia
There are numerous different causes of ataxia in cats. One of the more common causes is a congenital malformation called cerebellar hypoplasia. It’s when a portion of the brain in a kitten does not develop normally. This will cause kittens to be stumbling when walking, often have constant tremors, and have a very difficult time with balance. A lot of these kittens can do well once they learn how to maneuver around and are kept safe from falls and getting stuck in dangerous places. The severity of the tremors, ataxia, and ability of the kitten to get around varies – it depends on how underdeveloped the cerebellum is.
Cerebellar hypoplasia is typically diagnosed by a veterinarian’s physical exam. While an MRI would confirm the condition, this is not typically done. There is no treatment for kittens born with this malformation. If a kitten has this condition, it takes a patient and dedicated owner to make sure the cat grows up in a safe environment. Unfortunately, some kittens have severe side effects from this condition and have to be humanely euthanized.
Infectious Causes of Ataxia
Inner and/or middle ear infections causing damage to the eardrum can also cause ataxia. The eardrum is a part of the body that makes up the vestibular system or area of the body responsible for balance. The vestibular system coordinates movement of the head and eyes. Often times a cat with an inner and/or middle ear infection will be scratching at the affected ear(s), flapping the head, holding the affected ear(s) down, and have a head tilt towards the affected side. If severe enough, cats may develop abnormal sized pupils (anisocoria), shifting eye motion (nystagmus), nausea, and an inability to stand and/or walk on their own.
Please be aware that at-home treatments for a severe ear infection, especially if there is damage to the ear drum, can be dangerous. There are very few medications labeled safe for use if the ear drum is damaged. Flushing and/or putting OTC medications into the affected ear can actually cause your cat’s neurologic abnormalities to worsen. Please make sure you are seeing your veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan if you suspect your cat has an ear infection and eardrum injury.
Aside from a middle or inner ear infection, severe systemic infection (referred to as sepsis) may also cause ataxia. There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to a condition such as sepsis. Because sepsis can affect multiple organ systems, ataxia may develop from electrolyte imbalances, low blood sugar, elevated kidney and/or liver values, blood clotting abnormalities or a low red blood cell count. These bloodwork abnormalities can occur independent of sepsis as well. Therefore, it’s important to go over all bloodwork abnormalities with your veterinarian to try and determine a cause to your cat’s ataxia.
Viral Causes of Ataxi
Yes, there are viruses that can cause ataxia in your cat. One of the more common causes is a mutated virus that causes FIP, or Feline Infectious Peritonitis. FIP is a complicated, frustrating disease for both veterinarians and owners. It is not contagious to people and most commonly affects cats less than 1.5 years of age. FIP can cause a range of abnormal signs from watery eyes and nose, to anorexia, weight loss, seizures, and ataxia.
FIP can be very difficult to diagnose and unfortunately, treatment is limited and typically supportive only. While there are new tests and treatments emerging recently, it’s still more common for affected cats to lose their battle with the disease than survive.
Toxic causes of ataxia
The long and short of it is there are numerous toxins that can cause ataxia. The list of toxins that can cause any type of abnormalities in cats – from vomiting and diarrhea to ataxia, tremors or death – the list is endless. If it’s possible your cat ingested any human medications, veterinarians always recommend contacting poison control on what to do next.
One easy toxin you can avoid is OTC flea preventatives. Many OTC flea preventatives can cause severe tremors, seizures, and even death. Other OTC preventatives will just cause ataxia and weakness. Your cat will walk like it is drunk, be unable to stand and/or walk and constantly fall over. We always recommend getting your flea prevention from a veterinarian due to the risk of severe complications with many store-bought products.
If you accidentally put a product on your cat that causes ataxia, bathe your cat with a scent-free, dye-free dish soap. Rinse and dry your cat’s coat completely then bring them to your veterinarian for treatment.
Traumatic Causes of Ataxia
Head and neck trauma can be a cause of ataxia in your cat. This can commonly happen in cats that are mainly outdoors or live both indoors and outdoors. Any trauma to the head such as a fall from a height, what veterinarians refer to as a blunt force trauma (being hit by a car or object), or even a ruptured intervertebral disc can cause ataxia.
Depending on the cause of the ataxia, treatment will vary greatly. Cats may or may not be able to make a full recovery from their injuries. Some cats may continue to be ataxic through the rest of their life but still lead a fairly normal life.
Pain and Ataxia
An injured or ruptured ear drum can be especially painful for a cat. Not to mention that the inflamed, infected ear can also be uncomfortable and painful to the touch.
If your cat has a spinal cord injury, this can also be a painful condition. Your veterinarian will fully examine your cat and help to determine if there is evidence of pain.
Please make sure you are noticing if your cat is vocalizing at home, having difficulty getting in/out of the litterbox, has a hunched over back or is in any other way not themselves. These abnormal signs, in addition to the ataxia, will help guide your veterinarian’s recommendations for diagnostics and treatment and may be signs your cat is painful.
Treatment for Ataxia
As we discussed above, treatment varies greatly depending on the cause. Ear infections can be treated but there are numerous products that can be dangerous and make the condition worse. Ataxia caused by trauma also completely depends on the area of the body that is injured, the type of injury, and severity.
Infections can be treated but keep in mind that sepsis is severe. Hospitalization and aggressive care are often required.
Unfortunately for some conditions such as cerebellar hypoplasia and FIP, treatment is supportive only. This means that care is aimed at keeping the cat comfortable, controlling nausea, appetite and pain. There are no cures at this time for these conditions.
In conclusion, there are many causes, levels of severity, and treatment options for cats with ataxia. If you notice that your cat is falling over, having trouble with coordination, appears “drunk” or out of it, you should seek veterinary care.
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