Pit bulls, or American Staffordshire terriers, can suffer from a genetic neurological disorder called cerebellar cortical disintegration. Because this disease shows up in adulthood, it's not uncommon for affected dogs to be bred, passing it on to another generation. Have your pit bull genetically tested before making breeding decisions.
Cerebellar Cortical Disintegration
Cerebellar cortical disintegration, also known as cerebellar cortical abiotrophy or ataxia, affects a dog's ability to balance. Approximately 1 in 400 pit-bull-type dogs might suffer from this disorder. This disease results in premature aging and death of cells in the cerebellum, the part of the brain in charge of coordination. While cerebellar cortical disintegration often affects other dog breeds in puppyhood, that's not true of the pit bull or American Staffordshire terrier.
Symptoms of cerebellar cortical disintegration don't appear until an affected pit bull is between the ages of 2 and 6, or ever later. Early signs are subtle -- the dog might appear to be just a bit "off." He might appear fine walking on flat surfaces; but if the terrain shifts or he changes direction, he might stumble or fall over. As the disintegration progresses, the pit bull can no longer negotiate stairs or perform other simple tasks. He might exhibit nystagmus, a condition in which his eyes move in various directions. Eventually, the dog loses the ability to walk.
Along with a physical examination, your vet can diagnose cerebellar ataxia via magnetic resonance imaging. There is no cure for the disease. Make your dog as comfortable as possible, keeping him on firm surfaces and helping him navigate. Eventually, you will have to consider euthanizing your dog. According to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, the time from onset of clinical signs to varied from six months to over six years, with the majority of affected dogs put down within two to four years after diagnosis.
To avoid the heartache of dealing with a dog with cerebellar ataxia, don't purchase a Staffy puppy unless he has been genetically tested and found free of the disorder. A genetics laboratory requires either a blood sample or cheek swab in order to conduct the DNA testing. The results will show whether your dog is normal and will not develop or transmit the disease; or is a carrier, who won't develop the disease himself but will transmit it to 50 percent of his offspring; or is affected. If it's the latter, not only will he develop the disease, but all his offspring will have it.
- VetStreet: What You Need to Know About American Staffordshire Terrier / American Pit Bull Terrier Health
- International Veterinary Information Service: Degenerative Disorders of the Central Nervous System
- Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine: Cerebellar Cortical Degeneration in Adult American Staffordshire Terriers
- Canada's Guide to Dogs: American Staffordshire Terrier
- Optigen: DNA Test for Cerebellar Ataxia in the American Staffordshire Terrier (AmStaff) and as of 2/12/2010 the American Pit Bull Terrier
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.