Ataxia may be defined as the inability to coordinate the voluntary movement of muscles. Birds that are ataxic appear wobbly or clumsy and will often stand with the legs spread far apart in order to balance or hook their beak on the side of the cage. When severely ataxic, they will stumble and fall from the perch.
Ataxia may occur due to disorders of the nervous system or musculoskeletal system.
What to Watch For
Your veterinarian will recommend specific diagnostic tests depending on how severely ataxic the bird is, how long the problem has been going on, and if there are other symptoms. A complete history is extremely helpful in reaching a diagnosis. Be prepared to tell your veterinarian when the problem began, if the ataxia is constant or intermittent, your birds chewing habits, the type of diet your bird is on, and of any potential exposure to other birds. Tests may include:
Ataxic birds generally suffer from serious disease and require veterinary attention. In the meantime, take the following precautions:
After veterinary examination and treatment:
Ataxia may be defined as an inability to coordinate the voluntary movement of muscles. Birds that are ataxic appear wobbly or clumsy and will often stand with the legs spread far apart in order to balance or hook their beak on the side of the cage. When severely ataxic, they will stumble and fall from the perch. If ataxia is the result of nervous system disorders, other symptoms, such as trembling, head tilt, circling, star-gazing or seizures, may also occur.
Ataxia may occur due to disorders of the nervous system or musculoskeletal system. Nervous system disorders often result in an inability of the brain to perceive the position of the limbs, body or head in space or an inability of the brain to coordinate movement. This may occur as a result of damage to the spinal cord, inner ear or brain. The spinal cord carries information to the brain about the relative position or placement of the body, wings, head and legs. The fibers that carry this information are located on the surface of spinal cord, so relatively mild damage to the cord will cause ataxia.
Ataxia is usually one of the first symptoms of spinal cord or nerve damage. Birds with damage to peripheral nerves or the spinal cord usually have symptoms localized to the affected appendages and the level of mental activity is normal.
The inner ear and portions of the brain (medulla and myelencephalon) are responsible for maintaining balance and a normal body position. Damage (from infections, trauma or pressure) to the middle ear or brain will cause severe ataxia. Usually, these birds have other neurologic symptoms, such as a head tilt, circling, abnormal mental activity or seizures.
Metabolic disorders, such as diseases of the liver, kidneys, pancreas or parathyroid glands, may also affect the brain. Birds with metabolic disorders may not be able to eliminate toxic metabolites, or may be unable to regulate blood concentrations of glucose or calcium.
Birds with musculoskeletal damage may also appear uncoordinated, as the muscles are unable to respond properly to signals from the brain. This may occur with deficiencies of nutrients such as calcium, vitamin E or selenium or electrolyte disorders. Birds that are extremely weak from chronic diseases also appear ataxic. Ataxia is always a sign of serious disease warranting veterinary attention.
There are many causes of ataxia in birds. Ataxia can be caused by diseases of the nervous systems (brain and spinal cord) and can occur due to toxicities, metabolic diseases or systemic weakness. There are many contagious diseases that cause ataxia, so it is important to inform your veterinarian of any potential contact – direct or indirect – with other birds. Possible causes of ataxia in birds include:
A thorough history is extremely important in the diagnosis of ataxia. Be prepared to tell your veterinarian:
Your veterinarian will recommend specific diagnostic tests depending on the duration and severity of ataxia and physical examination findings. To find the cause of ataxia, extensive diagnostic testing is usually required. Any combination of the following may be recommended:
Your veterinarian may recommend one or more of the diagnostic tests described above. In the meantime, treatment of the symptoms might be needed, especially if the problem is severe. The following treatments may be applicable to some, but not all, birds with ataxia. Therapy is not a substitute for definite treatment of the underlying disease responsible for your bird's condition.