Important Note: This article has been checked and verified by a professional veterinarian for accuracy. However, you should always seek advice from your own vet before making any decisions on euthanasia as there are never black and white answers for this decision.
There is nothing more heart-breaking than having to consider whether to put down your dog. It’s a decision that nobody takes lightly, and hopefully you will have a little time on your side to make a balanced decision. Ataxia is one of those conditions that typically gives you some degree of time in which to decide whether to euthanize or not.
It’s perfectly normal go through the full range of emotions in order to fully process this huge decision. From discussing this issue with vets and going through this experience with dogs in my extended family, I decided to put some notes together explaining when it might be time to euthanize a dog with ataxia – here’s the short answer first.
When to euthanize a dog with ataxia? Causes of ataxia are highly variable; when to put down a dog with ataxia will depend if the cause can be identified, if it is treatable, and how intensive the treatment is. If the condition cannot be treated, you must consider the quality of life your pet will be left with. If treatment options are available, you must consider whether your pet can safely undergo treatment or if the extent of the treatment will provide enough of a benefit to outweigh the risks and recovery period. However, some pets with ataxia can recover completely or still have a good quality of life with some modifications.
Before you make any decision, please seek professional advice from a vet.
When to put down a dog with ataxia?
As ataxia is often the symptom of an underlying issue like cancer or a genetic, neurological problem, or something non-fatal, it’s not a simple answer on when the right time to euthanize is.
Because ataxia is can be the symptom of a very serious underlying issue such as cancer, a neurologic disorder, an infectious disease or a less sinister causes such as low blood sugar, inner ear infections, metabolic/endocrine disorders, or toxin ingestion it’s not a simple answer on when the right time to euthanize is.
For example, if your dog suffers from ataxia due to a toxin ingestion or inner-ear infection you might find that once the underlying condition is treatable and your dog’s ataxia will improve or resolve completely.
In these cases, a dog with ataxia can be cured and go on to lead a good quality of life.
However, this isn’t always the case, particularly if the cause of your dog’s ataxia is due to a severe back injury, a brain tumor, or progressive infectious disease. So, if you and your vet have determined that your dog’s ataxia is untreatable, you should then move to think about the extent the condition is having on your dog’s quality of life. Is your dog in pain? Are they able to enjoy activities they once loved? Is their condition causing additional concerns (incontinence, sores, etc).
Some dogs with progressive ataxia remain in severe pain, have limited to no mobility, and have no control over their bathroom habits. In cases like this, ataxia can mean euthanasia is the most sensible and caring approach.
With less severe causes of ataxia, some dogs can live a perfectly happy life with the right support and treatment. It might be that you need to make adjustments to home life, reconsider your dog climbing stairs, make the entire home safer and more comfortable for them.
When is the right time to euthanize a dog with ataxia?
Here are some of the questions you should ask yourself:
- How many of their limbs are affected by the condition?
- Can they still exercise and play?
- Can they still use the bathroom independently? If not am I prepared to learn how to express their bladder?
- How often are experiencing negative impacts by reduced mobility? (i.e- falling over, developing sores)
- Do they enjoy activities they once did?
- Are they in pain?
- Is the condition treatable or incurable?
- If the condition is treatable will they be spending a significant portion of the remainder of their life recovering from surgery?
- If surgery is an option, if your pet healthy enough to undergo anesthesia safely?
Even if ataxia renders your dog completely immobile and needing round-the-clock care, you might still try and argue that they are happy.
But you need to think about whether they are truly having the best quality of life if ataxia limits their life to the extent that they can no longer walk or stand up.
When my friend’s dog had ataxia, he made the decision to euthanize based on his dog’s happiness. For example, at the point his dog no longer showed joy from getting a treat or showed no visible emotion to a ball being thrown, he decided to go ahead.
If your dog no longer has the ability to feel joyful experiences, then it can be easier to decide to have them put down and let go.
Ultimately it is a decision only you can make once you have consulted with your veterinarian and considered all the implications of treatment.
Something else to consider is that research shows that a high number of first-time dog owners regret not putting down their dog sooner when they were suffering with a life-limiting illness.
The decision to euthanise your dog is a highly emotional and difficult one for any owner to make, but if ataxia leaves your dog’s live completely devoid of quality, euthanising them is really the kindest thing you can do for them.
How long can a dog survive with ataxia?
Another consideration is how long your dog will live with ataxia.
Because of the variety of reasons ataxia manifests in dogs, it is difficult to predict their life expectancy. If your dog experiences temporary ataxia as a result of something like an ear infection, then provided the infection is treated, the ataxia should go away and there should be no impact on your dog’s life expectancy.
In theory, if your dog’s ataxia is caused by cerebellar degeneration, which is a type of degenerative brain disease, this illness in itself will not necessarily kill them.
However, as is the case with most degenerative diseases, a point will come where your dog will be unable to function independently: they will be unable to walk, stand, communicate, eat or go to the toilet unaided – these symptoms are certainly ones that will bring the discussion of euthanasia forward.
It is hard to say when a dog will reach this point when diagnosed with cerebellar degeneration, as it depends on how advanced their condition was when diagnosed.
However, as discussed, if your dog gets to a point where they no longer have a quality of life, the kindest thing to do may well be to put them to sleep and let them slip away.
How is ataxia treated in dogs?
Treatment plans for ataxia will depend on the cause. In order to determine the cause willy likely require several diagnostics such as x-rays, bloodwork, ultrasound, CT Scan, or MRI. Some cases can be treated with out-patient medical treatment, other times spinal surgery or surgery to remove a tumor is necessary.
It is very important to understand that ataxia is in many cases a very serious symptom that requires immediate medical care. If the ataxia is due to a back injury the ability to surgically intervene is time dependent and your pet will have the best chance at recovery by being treated immediately. Under no circumstance should you wait to see if the ataxia resolves on its own. It is always better to be safe and have your pet evaluated by a veterinarian immediately.
Nursing from home
If you are taking care of your dog at home, you will need to help them outside regularly or be trained to express their bladder, hand-feed them food and help them drink water. These are all considerations that will be discussed in detail with your veterinarian.
Accident-proofing your home
Because your dog will be more likely to fall over if they have ataxia, you will need to remove any potential tripping hazards in your home.
The VCA Hospital website say the following about treatment:
“Treatment of ataxia will be influenced by the root cause. Pain management, supportive care, and making the environment safe (e.g., preventing access to stairs) are cornerstones of ataxia treatment. Regular reassessments will be scheduled in order to monitor the progress of recovery. Some causes of ataxia cannot be cured, and these dogs typically experience clinical signs that progress and may eventually result in the need for euthanasia.”
Ataxia is a symptom rather than a standalone condition. If your dog has ataxia, it is likely that you will only need to consider putting them down if the symptoms are debilitating enough to stop them from having a good quality of life.
If it gets to that point, it is important to have careful discussions with your vet about the best way forward. It might be difficult, but it is important to put your dog first, even though you want them to be around as long as possible.
After all, you both have the same ultimate interest at heart: the wellbeing of your dog.
It’s also key to remember that you are not alone in going through this dilemma. Countless dog owners across the globe have to wrestle with this decision, so it is comforting to know that even if our individual cases differ, there are people out there going through the same turmoil with their own pet.
The reason I say that is because you can often find support groups on Facebook and other online platforms to discuss the issues of euthanasia with other owners facing the same challenge.
Knowing this doesn’t change anything, but it can make the situation feel a lot less isolating.
Secondly, what the question of putting down your dog really comes down to, fundamentally, is their quality of life.
Are they in a lot of daily pain that can’t be medicated? Are they no longer able to function and do the things they enjoy, like playtime and walks? Is there day-to-day life overall made up of more good ones than bad?
If yes, then the decision time to euthanize your dog with ataxia is probably sooner than you would like to think – but should be taken with professional advice from a vet.