Pet Factsheets

Incoordination - ataxia

Ataxia or incoordination can be due to a variety of reasons. It is important to remember that ataxia in itself is a clinical sign of an illness and there will be an underlying cause that will need treatment.

What is ataxia?

Ataxia is the term used to describe abnormal movement as a result of decreased voluntary muscle control. Animals with ataxia can seem dizzy, or lack balance, and the gait often appears uncoordinated. Ataxia is usually a result of dysfunction within the nervous system and is not a disease itself.

What signs may my rabbit show?

A rabbit with ataxia may be unable to move properly. It may stagger, stumble, or fall over when attempting to move. Other neurological signs that can be seen alongside ataxia include a head tilt, or a tendency to walk in circles.
Ataxia can prevent normal toileting, grooming, and eating behaviours so rabbits that have been experiencing ataxia for more than a few hours may have fur soiled with urine or faeces, and they will be at risk for gut stasis as a result of not eating. 
As the brain is often a cause of ataxia, seizures can also be seen alongside ataxia.

Are any breeds more at risk?

Ataxia can occur in any rabbit of any age or gender. However, lop eared rabbits tend to have a higher risk of ear base abscesses and ear problems due to the shape of their ears, and disorders of the inner ear can affect balance and can lead to ataxia.

Why may my rabbit develop this problem?

There are numerous conditions that may cause a rabbit to become ataxic, including brain or spinal injuries, infection or parasitism, inner ear trauma or infection, disturbances in blood pressure, blood loss, heat stroke or ingestion of toxins.
The microscopic parasitic infection E. cuniculi is responsible for a host of clinical signs in rabbits. The parasite affects the brain and kidneys, which can cause a head tilt, seizures as well as hind limb paresis (weakness) or paralysis.
Any condition affecting the spine (fracture, abscess, slipped disc, etc) is highly likely to cause ataxia of the hindlimbs since the nerves leading through the spine will be affected.
Floppy rabbit syndrome has been well documented in rabbits, but its exact cause has never been truly identified. Rabbits affected with FRS lose all the strength in their limbs but remain bright and able to eat and drink as long as food is put within reach. Lead poisoning, hypokalaemia (potassium deficiency) and plant toxins have all been cited as potential causes, although no diagnosis based on investigative evidence, has ever been documented.
Myasthenia gravis (MG) is an extremely rare autoimmune disease that causes muscle weakness and excessive muscle fatigue. This varies in severity affecting voluntary muscles in the legs, neck, eyes, respiration, etc.

How will my vet diagnose the problem?

Since the list of possible causes for ataxia is relatively long your vet will need to rule out many of these to find out the source of the problem.
Your vet will collect a thorough clinical history and perform a clinical examination. Blood tests radiographs, ultrasound, ECG and possibly more in-depth imaging such as CT or MRI scan may be needed.

How will my rabbit be treated?

Treatment depends on the cause of the disease.  For example, infections of the inner ear are often treated with antibiotics and potentially surgery. E. cuniculi infections require medical treatment with the antiparasitic drug fenbendazole for a minimum of 28 days. Spinal injuries are likely to need referral and sadly depending upon the problem cannot always be treated. Toxicity will need to be treated accordingly. Floppy rabbit syndrome often resolves itself after a few days.

How can I help my rabbit?

It is important that whilst treatment is underway for the underlying cause, the rabbit is supported with nursing care. Your rabbit may be admitted to the veterinary practice or if they feel they are better nursed at home they may be sent home.
You will need to ensure that your rabbit is eating and drinking and has food within easy reach. They may require supportive syringe feeding. If the rabbit has a head tilt, or is rolling around, they will need to be enclosed into a safe and padded area so they don’t injure themselves further. They may be unable to clean themselves, so they should have their eyes and face wiped each day. If they are unable to move away from their urine and faeces it is imperative that they are kept clean.

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