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There are many reasons why your dog could be wobbly and uncoordinated or have balance issues. Some causes, such as ear infections, can be temporary and easy to treat. Others, such as strokes, consuming poisons, or spinal cord conditions, can be more serious. If your puppy has been wobbly since birth, they could have a neurological condition known as cerebellar hypoplasia.

A dog with cerebellar hypoplasia can usually still enjoy a high quality of life. Here’s what to know about cerebellar hypoplasia in dogs, including causes, diagnosis, and care.

What Is Cerebellar Hypoplasia in Dogs?

Cerebellar hypoplasia is a neurological disease typically seen in puppies from birth. It’s non-progressive, meaning it doesn’t get worse over time. The disease occurs when the cerebellum, a part of the brain, doesn’t form properly while the puppy is growing in the womb. The cerebellum is responsible for sending signals to the muscles that control balance, coordination, posture, and fine motor skills. This irregular development is why dogs with cerebellar hypoplasia have mobility issues.

What Causes Cerebellar Hypoplasia in Dogs?

Dr. Sarah A. Moore, DVM, is a Section Head Professor in Neurology and Neurosurgery in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. She explains that a number of different things can cause cerebellar hypoplasia.

Toy Fox Terrier puppy sitting in the grass.
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“The cerebellum is a portion of the brain that undergoes some pretty dramatic reorganization and development very early on in life,” Dr. Moore says. “Most classically, we think of cerebellar hypoplasia as being caused by viral infections that affect the animal either in utero — in the womb — or shortly after.” She explains that these infections damage the developing cells of the cerebellum.

Infectious Causes

Dogs at risk for cerebellar hypoplasia include puppies with neonatal viral infections like canine parvovirus or the canine herpes virus. These infections happen while the puppy is in the womb or during the first four weeks after birth. When caused by infection, cerebellar hypoplasia can occur in any dog breed. Dr. Moore explains that cerebellar hypoplasia resulting from infection tends to occur randomly in different dogs, rather than occurring commonly in certain breeds.

Non-Infectious Causes

Possible non-infectious causes include exposure to toxins, brain injuries, hereditary conditions, or unexpected events during brain development. There is one specific genetic cause of cerebellar hypoplasia described in the Eurasier Dog. “This causes underdevelopment or absence of the back portion of the cerebellum, called the vermis, and is termed Dandy-Walker syndrome,” Dr. Moore says.

Toy Fox Terriers are also predisposed to developing Dandy-Walker syndrome. However, it isn’t yet clear which specific genetic variant may be causing Dandy-Walker syndrome in this breed.

Cerebellar Abiotrophy vs. Cerebellar Hypoplasia in Dogs

A condition called cerebellar abiotrophy is more common in dogs than cerebellar hypoplasia, although there are similarities. “Cerebellar abiotrophy is a condition where a dog’s cerebellum initially develops normally, but then cells of the cerebellum become damaged and die off over time,” Dr. Moore says. “Cerebellar abiotrophy is usually caused by a genetic condition, and there are several of these that are very well-described in specific dog breeds.”

Some dog breeds develop cerebellar abiotrophy when they’re very young, while others develop it later in life. “For dogs with a neonatal onset of the condition, signs will be noticed either at birth or shortly thereafter. For those with juvenile or adult onsets, dogs will appear normal as puppies and develop signs later in life, sometimes even in adulthood,” Dr. Moore says.

Samoyed puppy laying in the grass outdoors.
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In its different forms, cerebellar abiotrophy has appeared in many breeds, including:

Dogs with cerebellar hypoplasia or abiotrophy may have similar symptoms. They both typically have a wobbly, uncoordinated gait (also called canine ataxia) and balance issues. Cerebellar abiotrophy is a progressive, life-limiting condition, while cerebellar hypoplasia will not worsen over time.

What Are the Symptoms of Cerebellar Hypoplasia in Dogs?

The severity of cerebellar hypoplasia symptoms varies in each case. In addition to a wobbly gait and balance issues, “Dogs could have tremors of the head and neck that seem to get better at rest and worse with activity, called intention tremors, might walk with an odd gait where their steps appear to be choppy and off balance, and appear to be high-stepping — goose-stepping,” Dr. Moore says.

Some people compare the walk of a dog with cerebellar hypoplasia to the stiff-legged, awkward way a toy soldier walks. Dogs might also stand with their legs wider apart than normal, which helps them make up for poor balance. You might also see rhythmic eye flicking (nystagmus), limb tremors, and a curve in the spine (called a sway) when they’re trying to keep their balance while standing still.

Bulldog puppy getting a check-up at the vet.
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How Is Cerebellar Hypoplasia in Dogs Diagnosed?

The symptoms of cerebellar hypoplasia can resemble symptoms of potentially life-threatening diseases. As a result, your veterinarian will take a detailed history and perform a physical exam and neurological assessment. They’ll also take blood and urine samples to rule out other infectious, traumatic, inflammatory, or cancerous causes.

An MRI can confirm cerebellar hypoplasia. However, your veterinarian might only suggest ordering an MRI to rule out other conditions, depending on the results of urine and blood tests.

Caring for a Dog With Cerebellar Hypoplasia

“Cerebellar hypoplasia is not a curable condition, but it also does not progress over time,” Dr. Moore says. “Most dogs are able to compensate well and live a normal, good-quality life.”

Depending on the severity of your dog’s case, you might need to make some adjustments to your home and lifestyle to keep them safe and comfortable. This may include:

  • Limiting access to stairs

  • Providing dog ramps to access beds or sofas

  • Putting down non-slip mats if the floor is slippery

  • Using a dog cart or other supportive transportation for longer walks

Pug in a wheelchair standing in the grass.
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If your dog has a minor case of cerebellar hypoplasia, they may only have slight tremors and minor balance issues. As a result, these dogs might not need major adjustments. Dogs with severe cerebellar hypoplasia may have more difficulty walking and need support during their daily routines.

Some dogs adjust well to using doggy wheelchairs and supportive dog harnesses during toilet breaks and short walks. Your vet may also recommend hand-feeding if a wobbling head makes it tricky for your dog to eat.

Cerebellar hypoplasia doesn’t affect cognitive function. Your wobbly dog will still respond well to training and appreciate plenty of enriching activities, such as going on sniff-centric walks and puzzle toys for dogs. Most importantly, your dog will still love you unconditionally, shouldn’t be in pain, and can live a long and happy life.

This article is intended solely as general guidance, and does not constitute health or other professional advice. Individual situations and applicable laws vary by jurisdiction, and you are encouraged to obtain appropriate advice from qualified professionals in the applicable jurisdictions. We make no representations or warranties concerning any course of action taken by any person following or otherwise using the information offered or provided in this article, including any such information associated with and provided in connection with third-party products, and we will not be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary or other damages that may result, including but not limited to economic loss, injury, illness or death.
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