Among the various health problems in dogs, seeing a dog shaking and unable to walk can be quite scary to witness. Ataxia is the medical term used to depict a lack of voluntary coordination which can lead to a gait abnormality. Many dog owners report that their dogs are shaking and “walking funny” or that their dogs developed a drunk-sailor like gait and have difficulty walking. The episode may be short lived but in some cases, the dog may recover but may remain wobbly for some time. Dog owners are often worried and wonder whether they dogs just had a stroke. Chances are, your dog is suffering from some other disorder, but only your vet can ultimately help you pinpoint the problem as to why your dog started shaking and being unable to walk.
Unlikely to be a Stroke
While strokes are common in humans, in dogs they are not as much. A stroke happens when the brain is temporarily deprived from oxygen, causing the equivalent of a “heart attack” but instead of affecting the heart it affects the brain.
The brain is an organ that totally depends on blood flow. When blood flow lowers to a certain extent, electrical disturbances take place and the central nervous system is negatively impacted leading to potential cell death if the episode is long lasting.
In humans, transient ischemic attacks occur when the brain’s oxygen deprivation episode is short-lived. Affected people develop dizziness, trouble walking and abnormal eye movements. It is therefore quite normal for dog owners to suspect a stroke when seeing their dogs shaking, acting startled and unable to walk normally.
In dogs though, while these symptoms may be a sign of a stroke, there are more likely causes than a stroke. Dogs do not tend to get atherosclerosis as people affected by heart disease do and chronic hypertension (high blood pressure) mostly tends to develop secondary to conditions like kidney disease or Cushing’s disease.
“Although brain infarction is the third leading cause of death in humans, cerebrovascular accidents are rarely reported in veterinary literature.”~ Dr. Helena Rylander & Ronald Lyman.
A Possible Seizure
Seizures can be caused by a variety of causes such as low blood sugar, liver or kidney disease, exposure to toxins such as moldy walnuts, lead, pesticides, brain tumors and several others. When an underlying cause cannot be found, the seizures are referred to as being “idiopathic.”
Recording the episode (if it happens often enough) and showing it to the vet can help determine whether what you are seeing is a seizure.
Sometimes dogs may get what are known as “petit mal seizures.” Affected dogs will still be alert, yet they are startled and shake because they are unable to control their bodies, explains veterinarian Dr. Scott. A petit mal seizure is suspected if the episode is short-lived and the affected dog recovers quickly.
A Spinal/Orthopedic Injury
In some cases, shaking and trouble walking in dogs can be indicative of some type of orthopedic problem such as injury to a dog’s leg or a spinal problem.
A slipped disk in the spinal column is very painful for dogs and may lead to shaking, drooling and panting from pain. A slipped disk may place pressure on the dog’s spinal cord to such an extent as to impair the nerves that are responsible for rear leg movement.
Affected dogs require strong anti-inflammatory drugs and pain medication, but if affected dogs are not responsive to such medications, surgery may be required, explains veterinarian Dr. Peter.
Vestibular Disease Disorder
Vestibular disease in dogs is not really a disease but rather a group of neurological signs that signal a problem with the dog’s vestibular system, which is responsible for maintaining balance. The vestibular system comprises the inner ear, the brainstem and several parts of the cerebellum.
Problems with the vestibular system are mostly seen in older dogs. Affected dogs develop a head tilt, staggering, walking in circles, falling, nausea, and side-to-side eye movements. The underlying causes can be several such as history of having a prior ear infection, cancer or systemic diseases. Sometimes an exact cause is not found.
Low Calcium Levels
If your dog has recently had puppies, consider the possibility that your dog may be suffering from eclampsia, also known as “milk fever.” This condition can occur at any time between two weeks prior to giving birth, up to 4 weeks after giving birth.
Eclampsia causes staggering, muscle weakness, shaking, high body temperature, vomiting, diarrhea, heart arrhythmias, seizures, and even possible death, if left untreated. The cause of this condition is low calcium levels which develop because of the higher demands placed on the dog’s body to produce milk.
Providing pregnant dogs with calcium supplements may be a contributing factor. If you suspect your dog has eclampsia, see your vet immediately as this can turn life threatening if not treated in time.
At the Vet’s Office
You vet may run some blood tests to check for low blood sugar, low calcium, or underlying kidney disease and liver disease. If all bloodwork checks out fine, then the next step may be an MRI or CT scan of the brain so to check for a tumor or abscess.
Treatment is based on the underlying cause. For example, for seizures, generally vets won’t treat with anti-seizure medications unless the episodes occur more frequently than once a month.
Sometimes, the underlying cause of a dog’s shaking and ataxia cannot be pinpointed, in that case, the condition is referred to as “idiopathic.” Veterinarians may refer complicated cases to a broad-certified veterinarian specializing in neurology.