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It can be stressful to notice sudden changes in your pet's behaviour - and even more concerning to see them feeling ill or even falling down. Here, our veterinary team in Halifax shares some potential reasons your dog or cat can't stand up or is staggering like they are drunk, what signs to watch for, and how they may be treated.

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My Dog or Cat Keeps Falling Over

If your dog or cat is staggering around like they are drunk or keeps falling over frequently, they might be experiencing a disease or injury that disrupts the vestibular apparatus in the inner ear.

The vestibular apparatus is responsible for maintaining your dog's or cat's balance and coordination. There are several possible causes behind conditions affecting balance. However, the precise cause cannot always be diagnosed without extensive testing.

Why Staggering Occurs in Dogs & Cats

Your dog or cat may be staggering, falling over, or having a hard time standing due to a condition known as ataxia. Ataxia can be defined as the inability to coordinate voluntary muscular movements that are symptomatic of central nervous system disorders or injuries, not due to muscle weakness.

There are different types of ataxia, and the one your pet is experiencing will depend on the area of the body in which it is located. These areas can include the legs, the head, the torso, or all three.

Some of the causes of ataxia are:

Cerebellar Ataxia

Cerebellar ataxia is any disease that affects the cerebellum. This can include canine distemper, strokes, or brain tumours.

Some symptoms can include:

  • Goose-stepping or exaggerated steps
  • Head tremors
  • Inability to control legs while running
  • Frequent loss of balance and falling over
  • Dragging toes on the ground

Proprioceptive Ataxia

Proprioception refers to your pet's ability to know where and how their body is oriented to their surroundings. Proprioceptive ataxia occurs when a dog or cat is unaware of where their legs are in relation to the space around them. This can make it difficult for your companion to move around, resulting in falling over or staggering.

Spinal cord lesions are one of the common causes of this type of ataxia. These lesions can be the result of an internal medical condition such as a bulging disc, mass, tumour, or nerve injury, as well as bleeding blood vessels or clots in the spinal column.

Symptoms of proprioceptive ataxia include:

  • Stumbling or staggering
  • Dragging their toes
  • Paws bending under when walking
  • Swaying

Vestibular Ataxia

Vestibular ataxia, or vestibular syndrome, occurs when there is an issue affecting the inner ear or brainstem.

There are many potential causes, including ear infections, inner ear or brainstem tumours, head or ear trauma, strokes, and more.

Symptoms of vestibular ataxia in pets include:

  • Head tilted to one side
  • Uncoordinated gait (staggering)
  • Circling while walking
  • Eyes continuously move, usually in jerking movements (known as nystagmus)
  • Inability to stand, resulting in falling down
  • Excessive salivation

Treating Cats & Dogs Who Can't Stand Up

Reach out to your primary vet as soon as you notice your dog or cat falling, staggering, or unable to stand. Your vet will perform an examination, discuss your concerns, and ask questions about what you have witnessed. Your veterinarian will likely also request diagnostic testing to help diagnose the cause of your pet's symptoms. These diagnostic tests may include advanced imaging such as an MRI or CT scan. 

Once your veterinarian has diagnosed your dog or cat's condition and the cause, they will recommend the appropriate course of action depending on the location and type of ataxia.

Your companion may require care for any underlying conditions and symptoms related to their primary condition. Some of these supportive treatments include the following:

  • Intravenous fluid to help treat dehydration
  • Medication to help alleviate nausea and vomiting
  • Surgical decompression of discs or masses

When is a loss of balance an emergency?

Your dog or cat suddenly being unable to stand, along with symptoms like vomiting, can indicate a potentially serious or life-threatening condition. Because of this, you should bring your dog or cat to your primary vet or nearest emergency veterinary hospital right away if they begin to show any of the signs listed above.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

If your companion is in need of emergency veterinary care in Halifax, Dartmouth, or the surrounding area, please contact us at Coastal Care Veterinary Emergency & Referral Hospital right away. We are here to help.

My Pet Can't Stand & Keeps Falling: Causes & What to Do

Caring for Pets in Atlantic Canada

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