wobbler syndrome in dogs

wobbler disease in pets
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on May 15 2020

In another blog, we discussed intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) in dogs and focused on disc herniations that occur in the spine located between the front and hind limbs. In this blog, we’ll address the kind of disease that big dogs like Great Danes and Doberman Pinschers get – cervical instability, or Wobbler syndrome.

What is Wobbler syndrome?

Wobbler syndrome is a neurologic condition that most commonly affects the spine in the neck of large breed dogs. Small dogs and cats can be affected too, but not as often.

Also known as cervical vertebral malformation (CVM) and cervical spondylomyelopathy (CSM), there are several underlying factors that contribute to Wobbler syndrome, including:

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  • narrowing of the spinal canal in the neck area
  • misshapen vertebrae in the neck
  • buildup of excess tissue around the vertebrae
  • degeneration of the intervertebral discs
  • vertebral instability

One or more of these factors lead to compression of the spinal cord, which causes clinical signs to appear.

Breeds at risk

Great Danes and Doberman Pinschers are most commonly affected, but any large or giant breed dog can show signs of this neurologic disease.

The age of onset varies by breed: Great Danes are typically affected when they’re young, whereas Doberman Pinschers are usually middle-aged to older when they first show clinical signs

If you have a large or giant breed dog, be on the lookout for signs of hind-end weakness and contact your veterinarian right away if you notice it.

Signs + symptoms of Wobbler syndrome in dogs

Clinical signs of Wobbler syndrome stem from spinal cord compression. Typically, these dogs have a “wobbly” gait (hence the name!), especially in their hind limbs.

Neck pain often accompanies rear limb abnormalities, and as the disease progresses, affected dogs can also become wobbly on the front legs. With spinal cord compression comes a great deal of pain, and affected dogs may walk with their head down (a common sign of pain).

In many cases, the onset of weakness appears gradually. The exception is when pets present with herniation of the vertebral disc, which causes clinical signs acutely, or all of a sudden.

In about 5 percent of cases, patients can become acutely paralyzed in all four limbs. Any pet who experiences sudden onset weakness or paralysis should be seen by a veterinarian right away. This is an emergency and time is of the essence to restore your pet’s ability to walk.

Diagnosis

Your veterinarian may take an X-ray of your dog’s spine to rule out fractures or neoplastic lesions, but if Wobbler syndrome is on the top of his list of diagnoses (taking your dog’s age and breed into account), he’ll probably refer you to a veterinary neurologist. Specialized diagnostics, like myelograms or MRIs, will help the neurologist pinpoint the exact cause of trouble so that a specific treatment plan can be developed for your pet

Treatment

Wobbler syndrome can be treated medically or surgically, depending on the severity of the symptoms.

Medical management includes the reduction of pain and inflammation with steroidal or non-steroidal medications and the reduction of muscular spasms with muscle relaxers. Restricted activity is an important part of medical therapy.

Surgical interventions are numerous, but all have the goal of decompression of the spinal cord and stabilization of the vertebrae. Your pet’s condition and the preference of the surgeon will determine which surgical procedure is right for your pet. Surgical candidates will need significant postoperative physical therapy.

Prognosis

As with treatment options, the prognosis for dogs with Wobbler syndrome varies depending on the severity of the disease.

Dogs with more severe neurologic dysfunction will have a poorer prognosis. A study conducted by veterinarians at the University of Ohio found that of those cases managed medically, 50 percent of dogs improved, 30 percent of dogs stayed the same and 20 percent of dogs worsened over time. Dogs who were treated surgically had an 80 percent recovery rate with 20 percent of dogs remaining stable or worsening postoperatively.

Case study: 4-year-old female Great Dane

Treatment: rehab therapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture

Barley had a shuffle in her step, but her pet parents never thought anything of it.

“We’d say she was ‘wearing slippers’ because she scooted her back paws,” says mom Lisa. But when they noticed a big change in her coordination after a few days at “camp,” they realized she needed to see a vet. A myelogram uncovered Wobbler syndrome, and her parents opted for a rehabilitation program with hydrotherapy and acupuncture.

“It’s amazing how much better she’s doing,” Lisa says. “Before, she couldn’t walk down the street without getting tired, and now we walk every day!”

Case study 2: 6-year-old female mixed breed dog

Treatment: laser therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic care

Nala is as big as her heart, but a Wobbler diagnosis certainly didn’t stop her from being a giant lap dog.

“It came on overnight,” says dad Steve. “She was fine one day and could barely walk the next.” An X-ray revealed an abnormality on her spine and an MRI confirmed Wobbler syndrome. But because of the location, surgery wasn’t an option. Though her walking isn’t as good as it once was, laser therapy, acupuncture and chiropractic treatments have helped her get back on all four paws.

“She’s had an unbelievable improvement to her quality of life,” Steve says.

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