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Why is My Dog Stumbling While Walking: A Complete Guide To Causes and Solutions - PawSafe
Dog Healthcare

Why is My Dog Stumbling While Walking: A Complete Guide To Causes and Solutions

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

dog stumbling while walking

Dog owners may become concerned if they notice their dog stumbling while walking. While it can be alarming to watch, there are several reasons why a dog may trip or have difficulty walking.

In some cases, it may be due to a temporary issue, while in others, it may be a sign of a more severe condition. Some underlying issues, like musculoskeletal problems, have a few home measures you can take, like giving joint supplements from a young age. 

We’ve consulted expert sources such as the New Dog Steps and Veterinary Neurology to understand a staggering gait in canines better. Knowing why a dog is stumbling while walking will determine whether you need to visit the vet or make lifestyle changes.

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Dogs are known for their agility and coordination, so it can be concerning when they start stumbling while walking. Another common coordination issue is a dog walking in circles or a dogs walking sideways.

If you notice your dog stumbling while walking, it’s essential to speak with your veterinarian to determine the underlying cause. Depending on the cause, treatment may include medication, physical therapy, or lifestyle changes to help your dog better manage their condition.

This senior dog losing balance (ataxia) is what stumbling while walking looks like in a dog having a stroke.

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Key Takeaways

  • Dog stumbling while walking can be caused by various factors, some of which are more serious than others.
  • Common causes of dog stumbling include neurological disorders, infections, physical injuries, and age-related issues.
  • If your dog is stumbling or having difficulty walking, it’s essential to consult with a veterinarian to determine the underlying cause and appropriate treatment.

Common Reasons for Dog Stumbling

When we talk about a dog stumbling a lot, we are often talking about ataxia. Ataxia refers to a lack of coordination anywhere within the nervous system or a physical presentation of muscular incoordination. Research has grouped ataxia into three based on the affected area.

These are proprioceptive ataxia, referring to a lack of spatial awareness of where limbs are, vestibular ataxia due to abnormal inner ear or brainstem functioning, and cerebellar located at the cerebellum.

It’s important to note that ataxia is a sign, not a disease. It can be caused by underlying conditions, including neurological disorders, spinal cord injuries, or even certain medications. Dogs with ataxia may stumble, appear disoriented, or have trouble maintaining balance.

Dogs may stumble while walking for various reasons, some more common than others. Here are a few of the most frequent causes of dog stumbling:

1. Vestibular Disease

Vestibular disease is a condition that affects a dog’s vestibular system, in turn affecting balance and coordination. It can be caused by various factors, including ear infections, head trauma, or even certain medications. 

Dogs with vestibular disease may stumble, tilt their head to one side, or have trouble standing up. A study of 188 dogs with vestibular disease showed that 185 of them had a head tilt, 123 had a stumbling gait while walking, and 93 had positional strabismus (abnormal eye positions).

This dog named Casey is a great demonstration of most of the signs listed above:

2. Arthritis

Arthritis is a common condition that can cause joint pain and stiffness in dogs. When a dog’s joints are affected by arthritis, it can be challenging to move around without tripping or losing their balance. Arthritis is more common in older dogs but can affect dogs of any age.

3. Neurological Disorders

Neurological disorders commonly cause trouble with balance and walking in dogs. These disorders can affect the brain, spinal cord, or nerves and cause a range of symptoms, including weakness, tremors, and loss of coordination.

In addition to vestibular diseases affecting the middle and inner ear, other neurological conditions causing dog stumbling include:

Intervertebral Disc Disease

Intervertebral disc disease is a condition that affects the spinal discs and can cause pain, weakness, and loss of coordination. It is commonly seen in small breed dogs and long breeds such as Dachshunds and Corgis.  

Unfortunately, severe IVDD will most likely result in paralysis and the legs looking like they’ve fallen asleep.

Wobbler Syndrome

Wobbler syndrome is a condition that affects the cervical spine and can cause weakness, incoordination, and stumbling. It is most commonly seen in large breed dogs like Great Danes and can be caused by spinal cord compression.

Expert sources state that there are two types of wobbler syndrome. The first is cervical stenotic myelopathy, affecting young large or giant breed puppies due to a diet that over-accelerates growth. The second type occurs in the middle to old large dogs due to chronic bulging intervertebral disc.

Doberman Dancing Disease

Doberman dancing disease, or distal polyneuropathy, is a condition that causes the hind legs to move on their own. It can cause weakness, incoordination, and stumbling. It is most commonly seen in Doberman Pinschers and Doberman mixes.

Spinal Cord Issues

Spinal cord issues such as tumors, trauma, inflammation, or embolism can cause weakness, incoordination, and stumbling. A range of factors, including injury, infection, or cancer, can cause these conditions.

Degenerative Myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy is a condition that affects the spinal cord and can cause weakness, incoordination, and stumbling. It is most commonly seen in older dogs and can be caused by spinal cord degeneration.

Forebrain Dysfunction

Forebrain dysfunction is a condition that affects the brain and can cause a range of symptoms, including weakness, tremors, and loss of coordination. Various factors, including infection, inflammation, or injury, can cause it.

Brain Tumors

A brain tumor can cause various symptoms, including weakness, incoordination, and stumbling. It can be caused by multiple factors, including genetic predisposition, infection, or injury.

Cerebellum Disorders

Cerebellum disorders can cause various symptoms, including weakness, incoordination, and stumbling. Several factors, including infection, inflammation, or injury, can cause these conditions.

4. Muscle Weakness

Muscle weakness can be caused by a variety of underlying conditions, including certain diseases or injuries. Dogs with muscle weakness may trip or have trouble standing up and appear lethargic or weak.

5. Physical Injuries 

Injuries may include head trauma, muscle strains, bone fractures, and dislocation. Canines are clumsy, so injuries are expected, but most of these heal pretty nicely. However, severe cases may cause pain, stiffness, and limited mobility. Severe injuries like getting hit by a car must receive veterinary attention to prevent internal bleeding.

Head trauma is the most severe of all these injuries. It can happen when the dog hits its head on a hard surface or falls from a height. Head trauma can lead to a concussion, which can cause a range of symptoms, including confusion, disorientation, and loss of balance.

6. Age-Related Causes

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) is a condition that affects older dogs and is similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. It can cause symptoms, including a dog that is disoriented,  unbalanced, and confused, and behavior changes like not recognizing and ignoring you. Dogs with CDS may stumble while walking due to their confusion and disorientation.

Other age-related causes of dog stumbling while walking include arthritis, a possible stroke, and ear infections. Vestibular diseases are also particularly prevalent in older dogs. 

7. Poisoning 

Dogs that ingest toxic substances, such as drugs or chemicals, can experience various symptoms, including stumbling or losing coordination and foaming in the mouth.

If you suspect that your dog has ingested a toxic substance, it’s essential to seek veterinary care immediately because poisons can be lethal.

8. Infections

Infections can cause a dog to stumble while walking. Infections can occur in different parts of the dog’s body, leading to various symptoms. This section will discuss two types of infections that can cause a dog to stumble while walking: middle and inner ear infections and vertebrae infections.

Middle & Inner Ear Infections ( including vestibular diseases)

Middle and inner ear infections can cause a dog to stumble while walking. These infections can be caused by bacteria or viruses and can lead to inflammation and swelling in the ear. The inflammation and swelling can affect the dog’s balance, leading to stumbling while walking.

Some signs of middle and inner ear infections include:

  • Head shaking;
  • Scratching at the ear;
  • Ear discharge;
  • Redness and swelling of the ear;
  • Hot ears;
  • Loss of balance; and
  • Stumbling while walking

Treatment for middle and inner ear infections may include antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications, and ear drops. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove infected tissue.

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Vertebrae Infections

Vertebrae infections can also cause a dog to stumble while walking. These infections can be caused by bacteria or viruses and can lead to inflammation and swelling in the vertebrae. The inflammation and swelling can affect the dog’s spinal cord, leading to stumbling while walking.

Some signs of vertebrae infections include:

  • Stiffness and pain in the neck or back;
  • Loss of balance;
  • Stumbling while walking; and
  • Weakness in the legs

Treating vertebrae infections may include antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications, and pain relievers. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove infected tissue.

9. Severe Dehydration

Dogs must have water to survive and can only go two days without it. Severe signs of dehydration include intense panting, staggering and stumbling, weakness and inability to get up, sunken eyes, and dry, sticky gums. 

10. Other Causes Of Dogs Stumbling

Thiamine Deficiency

Thiamine deficiency can cause various neurological problems in dogs, including stumbling while walking. Dogs that are fed diets that are low in thiamine or diets that are not balanced can develop a thiamine deficiency. This deficiency can also be caused by certain medical conditions that interfere with the absorption of thiamine.

Poisoning, Toxicity, and Reactions to Medications

Certain toxins, drugs, and medications can cause stumbling and other neurological symptoms in dogs. These can include pesticides, rodenticides, and certain medications used to treat seizures or anxiety. Poisoning and toxicity can cause other symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea, and seizures.

Low Levels of Calcium, Potassium, or Glucose

Low calcium, potassium (hypokalemia), or glucose levels can cause stumbling and other neurological symptoms in dogs. Several medical conditions, including kidney disease, liver disease, and diabetes, can cause these imbalances.

Overexertion and Heat

Overexertion and heat can cause dogs to become dehydrated and overheated, leading to stumbling and other symptoms of heat stroke. Dogs that are overweight or have pre-existing medical conditions are at a higher risk of developing heat stroke.

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Heart Disease

Heart disease can cause dogs to become weak and lethargic, leading to stumbling and other symptoms. Dogs with heart disease may also experience difficulty breathing, coughing, and exercise intolerance.

How To Prevent Stumbling While Walking in Dogs

Regular Vet Check-Ups

Regular vet check-ups ensure your dog’s overall health and well-being. During these check-ups, the vet can identify any underlying health issues that may cause your dog to stumble while walking. The vet can also provide necessary vaccinations and preventive care to keep your dog healthy.

Proper Nutrition

Proper nutrition is crucial in maintaining your dog’s health. A well-balanced diet with all the necessary nutrients can help prevent various health issues, including joint problems that can cause stumbling while walking. Feeding your dog a high-quality diet that meets their nutritional needs is essential. You can consult your vet to determine the best diet for your dog.

Physical Exercise

Physical exercise is essential to keep your dog healthy and active. Regular exercise helps maintain muscle tone and keeps your dog’s joints healthy. It is crucial to ensure that your dog gets enough exercise to prevent weight gain, which can put extra pressure on their joints and cause stumbling while walking. You can engage your dog in walking, running, swimming, and playing fetch.

How To Treat Dogs Stumbling While Walking

Medication

In cases where neurological or muscular disorders cause stumbling, medication can be prescribed to help manage the condition. 

Anti-inflammatory drugs and pain relievers can ease discomfort and inflammation in joints and muscles, while muscle relaxants can help reduce muscle spasms. In some cases, anti-seizure medications may be prescribed to manage seizures that could be causing the stumbling.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy can help improve muscle strength, coordination, and balance in dogs stumbling due to musculoskeletal issues.

 A physical therapist can design a customized exercise program to help improve the dog’s mobility and prevent further injury. This may include exercises to strengthen the core muscles, improve balance, and increase flexibility.

Surgery

Surgery may be necessary in cases where the stumbling is caused by a structural abnormality or injury that cannot be managed with medication or physical therapy. For example, if a dog has a herniated disc in their spine, surgery may be required to remove the damaged disc and relieve pressure on the spinal cord.

 Similarly, if a dog has a torn ligament in their knee, surgery may be necessary to repair the ligament and stabilize the joint.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some common causes of a dog stumbling while walking?

There are several reasons why a dog may trip over front paws while walking, including inner ear problems, neurological disorders, joint problems, muscle weakness, and medication side effects. It is crucial to identify the underlying cause to determine the appropriate treatment.

How can I help my dog with balance issues?

You can do several things to help your dog with balance issues, such as providing a stable walking surface, using a harness or support sling, and practicing balance exercises. It is also essential to make any necessary modifications to your home to prevent falls.

What are some signs that my senior dog may be experiencing balance problems?

Some common signs of balance problems in senior dogs include stumbling or falling, difficulty standing up or walking, head tilting, and loss of coordination. If you notice any of these signs, it is essential to consult with your veterinarian.

Can certain medical conditions cause a dog to stumble while walking?

Yes, certain medical conditions such as vestibular disease, arthritis, and degenerative myelopathy can cause a dog to stumble while walking. It is essential to have your dog evaluated by a veterinarian to determine the underlying cause.

What are some exercises that can improve a dog’s balance?

Several exercises can help improve a dog’s balance, such as standing on unstable surfaces, walking on a balance beam, and practicing hind leg lifts. It is essential to consult with a veterinarian or certified canine rehabilitation therapist before starting any exercise program.

When should I take my dog to the vet if they are stumbling while walking?

If your dog is stumbling while walking, it is vital to take them to the vet as soon as possible. This is especially true if the stumbling is sudden or accompanied by other symptoms such as vomiting or lethargy. Early diagnosis and treatment can improve your dog’s chances of recovery.

Final Thoughts

Dogs having trouble with balance and walking can be caused by various factors, including neurological issues, joint problems, muscle weakness, infections, poisoning, or even injury. Early detection and appropriate treatment are crucial to ensure your dog’s well-being and prevent further complications.

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe

Author

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.