My dog keeps falling over, what should I do?

If your dog suddenly loses their sense of balance they could be suffering from a serious health problem that requires immediate veterinary attention. Ataxia in dogs is the name given to the condition relating to a sensory dysfunction that results in a loss of coordination in the dog’s head, limbs, or rear end.

There are three types of ataxia commonly seen in dogs – cerebellar, sensory and vestibular. Cerebellar ataxia in dogs occurs when the cerebellum, a part of your dog’s brain, is damaged. Sensory, or proprioceptive, ataxia is diagnosed when the spinal cord is slowly compressed due to a tumour or bulging intervertebral disk, while vestibular ataxia is the result of a problem in the inner ear or brainstem.

What are the most common ataxia in dogs symptoms?

One of the most obvious signs your dog is suffering from ataxia is unsteadiness on their feet. In vestibular syndrome, your dog’s eyes may drift from side to side, they’ll perhaps tilt their head, and, in order to stay upright, they may stand with their legs wide apart. Sensory ataxia is linked to problems with the spinal cord, and can also result in a loss of balance and awkward gait. The main symptoms of cerebellar ataxia include loss of coordination, swaying, tremors, falling, and weakness.

Image of old dog for Vets Now article on ataxia in dogs symptoms
Vestibular syndrome is most common in medium and larger dogs aged eight years old or older.

Vestibular disorder in dogs

The vestibular system is composed of portions of the brain and ear.  It’s responsible for maintaining our sense of balance. When something goes wrong, it feels like the world is spinning.  We do not know what causes vestibular disorder in dogs but the condition is usually rapid in onset but non-progressive. That means it does not get any worse. Our vets see vestibular syndrome in all breeds of dog, but it’s most common in medium and larger dogs aged eight years old or older.

Vestibular syndrome is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a ‘stroke’.  The signs you may see are loss of balance, leaning or circling to one side, head tilt, rapid eye movements (nystagmus), reduced appetite and vomiting.  Sometimes the loss of balance is so severe that the dog rolls over repeatedly.

Treatment for dog falling over

Treatment for ataxia is mainly supportive and may include antiemetic (anti-vomiting) medications and intravenous fluids (a drip) if your dog is dehydrated. Occasionally sedation may be needed for dogs with severe disorientation. If your dog is well enough to be nursed at home, you will need to protect your dog from falls, help him outside to urinate and defecate, and hand feed and water.

Other causes for dog falling over

Head trauma. Signs of head trauma can appear at any time during the first 24 hours after a blow to the head. The most important thing to observe is your dog’s level of consciousness and behaviour.  We would recommend you take your dog for a checkup after any blow to the head.
Otitis media. Otitis media is an infection or inflammation of the middle ear and can lead to signs of pain, head shaking, head tilt, anorexia, incoordination, and occasionally vomiting. Your vet may need to perform tests such as ear swabs and may prescribe antibiotics.
Poisoning. If you think your dog may have eaten something he shouldn’t have, contact your vet.
Diabetics (hypoglycaemia). If your dog is diabetic he may be suffering from low blood glucose.