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Ataxia In Cats – Definition, Causes, And Treatment (Vet Answer)

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Dr. Lindsay Bisset

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Ataxia is the scientific term used to describe the presence of abnormal, uncoordinated movements. Ataxia is not a disease itself, but rather a sign of an underlying disease or disorder.

There are three types of ataxia in cats, namely proprioceptive ataxia, vestibular ataxia, and cerebellar ataxia. We’ll discuss what all this means and why it’s important below.

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Ataxia In Cats: Definition, Causes, & Treatment

1. Proprioceptive Ataxia

Proprioception is the body’s ability to sense its location, movement, and action. Proprioception allows a cat to walk without consciously thinking about where to place its feet next. Proprioceptive ataxia occurs when there is spinal cord disease. As a result, there is less feedback from the brain telling the body where it is in relation to the ground.

A cat with proprioceptive ataxia will be wobbly, its limbs will cross over as it walks, and its toes will knuckle over.

red tabby cat in pain walking on grass outdoor
Image Credit: lagunabluemolly, Pixabay

2. Vestibular Ataxia

The vestibular system is a sensory system involved in balance. The vestibular system can be divided into peripheral and central components. The peripheral component is located deep within the inner ear, while the central components are located within the lower area of the brain. Disease or damage to the peripheral or central system may lead to vestibular ataxia.

Signs of vestibular ataxia include a head tilt, leaning, falling, rolling, occasionally circling, and involuntary eye movements (nystagmus).


3. Cerebellar Ataxia

Cerebellar ataxia is seen in cats that have diseases or abnormalities of the cerebellum.

The cerebellum is a part of the brain at the back of the skull that is responsible for coordination and balance.

Cats with cerebellar ataxia often look normal at rest, but when they begin to move, they have uncoordinated movements and large, exaggerated steps. Affected cats typically also have head and body tremors, and a wide-legged stance.

black and white cat walking on grass outdoor
Image Credit: pasja1000, Pixabay

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Causes of Ataxia in Cats

There are many causes of ataxia in cats, depending on where the problem is located.

1. Causes of proprioceptive ataxia in cats include:

  • Spinal cord bleeding
  • Spinal cord stroke (disruption in the blood supply to the spinal cord)
  • Vertebral fractures
  • Spinal cord tumors
  • Spinal cord inflammation
  • Spinal abscess
  • Intervertebral disc disease
  • Developmental abnormality of the spine or spinal cord

2. Causes of vestibular ataxia in cats include:

  • Middle or inner ear infection
  • Nasopharyngeal polyp
  • Middle or inner ear tumor
  • Brain tumor
  • Head trauma
  • Inflammation of the brain caused by infections (e.g., Toxoplasma and Feline Infectious Peritonitis)
  • Idiopathic (unknown cause)
cat lying on the floor
Image Credit: Anthony de Kroon, Unsplash

3. Causes of cerebellar ataxia in cats include:

  • Structural abnormalities (e.g., underdevelopment of the cerebellum caused by panleukopenia virus infection of developing kittens in utero)
  • Brain tumors
  • Inflammation or infection of the brain (e.g., Toxoplasma, FIP, immune-mediated inflammation)
  • Head trauma

4. Miscellaneous causes of ataxia

  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
  • Drugs (e.g., metronidazole)
  • Toxins (e.g., lead)

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Treatment of Ataxia in Cats

The treatment is dependent on the underlying cause of the ataxia. In order to determine the cause and to classify the ataxia as proprioceptive, vestibular, or cerebellar, the treating veterinarian will take a thorough history of the affected cat, and perform a physical and neurological exam. Additional tests such as blood tests, ear swabs, X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and cerebrospinal fluid analysis, may also be necessary.

Some causes of ataxia are treatable. For example, a middle or inner ear infection causing vestibular ataxia is treated with antibiotics or antifungal medications depending on the infectious organism identified. Surgery may be indicated for intervertebral disc disease, vertebral fractures, nasopharyngeal polyps, and certain types of tumors. There is no specific treatment for idiopathic ataxia, other than supportive treatment, and the condition will often resolve on its own.

Unfortunately, not all diseases and disorders causing ataxia are curable, in which case the focus of treatment is on maintaining the quality of life for the cat.

Cats with ataxia should be confined to a space where they cannot injure themselves. Affected cats may also need supportive care such as pain control, anti-nausea medication, IV fluids, and assisted feeding if they are unable to eat and drink by themselves.


Featured Image Credit: Danny Chang, Pixabay

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