Wobbler syndrome is a disease that results from a compressed spinal cord in a dog's neck. The syndrome is characterized by the wobbly gait it causes in the dog's impacted hind legs. Other symptoms include neck pain, incoordination, and difficulty sitting and laying down. The cause of wobbler syndrome is unknown, but the disease is more prevalent in large and giant breeds like Doberman pinschers, Great Danes, mastiffs, and rottweilers. Your vet can diagnose wobbler syndrome with a physical examination and radiographic tests. Treatment usually begins with movement restriction and anti-inflammatory medications but will often require surgery. The prognosis of wobbler syndrome greatly depends on the severity of the condition.
What Is Wobbler Syndrome?
Wobbler syndrome is a neurological disease that causes a compressed spinal cord in a dog's neck. The syndrome has many names and sub-diagnoses, including cervical vertebral instability (CVI), cervical vertebral malformation (CVM), and cervical vertebral malformation-malarticulation (CVMM). The pressure on the spinal cord causes issues in a dog's neurological system and inhibits normal motor function. Wobbler syndrome is characterized by a wobbly, unsteady gait, caused by instability in the hind legs. There are two main types of the syndrome: disk-associated wobbler syndrome (DAWS) and Bony-associated cervical spondylomyelopathy. The former affects middle-aged large-breed dogs, and the latter affects young giant-breed dogs.
Symptoms of Wobbler Syndrome in Dogs
Sometimes, symptoms caused by wobbler syndrome will present suddenly, but they usually appear at a young age and progress slowly as the condition worsens. While a dog's wobbling is often noticeable, there are other, more subtle symptoms to look out for and treat before the disease becomes increasingly severe.
The clearest symptom of wobbler syndrome is an altered gait. This is usually displayed in a wobbly, swaying walk. Your dog may take longer, slower strides caused by weakened hind legs. When wobbler syndrome advances, your dog's front legs will likely become affected as well.
Your dog may be reluctant to move its neck due to pain caused by compressed vertebrae. This could look like its head permanently hung down or tilted up, as the dog is unable to bend it in either direction. When untreated, the neck pain can become extreme and seriously impact your dog's quality of life.
If your dog has wobbler syndrome, you may notice it struggling with coordination. In addition to wobbling, this can look like stumbling and tripping.
Difficulty Standing Up or Laying Down
Spinal compression can affect your dog's laying, sitting, and walking ability. This can also be caused by pain from a related herniated disk.
You might notice your dog displaying signs of general weakness due to wobbler syndrome. In addition to motor difficulty, prolonged pain can exhaust your dog.
Causes of Wobbler Syndrome
Wobbler syndrome has a couple of suspected causes, but no one understands the root cause of the spinal cord compression.
- Genetics: Some dog breeds are more likely to develop wobbler syndrome than others. These breeds include Doberman pinschers, Great Danes, mastiffs, and rottweilers. Doberman pinschers and Great Danes account for 80% of wobbler syndrome cases. Small dogs are also susceptible to developing wobbler syndrome, but it is more commonly found in large and giant-breed dogs.
- Nutrition: Some studies suggest that nutrition may be at play in the development of wobbler syndrome. High calcium, protein, and phosphorus diets can make puppies grow faster, contributing to the quick skeletal changes that affect a dog's spinal cord.
Diagnosing Wobbler Syndrome in Dogs
Your vet will perform a complete physical and neurological examination to diagnose your dog with wobbler syndrome. The exam will often be accompanied by blood tests, spinal fluid analysis, and x-rays to rule out other conditions that may be causing your dog's symptoms. Your vet may also perform a myelogram, a type of radiographic exam that uses contrast dye and x-rays to determine the exact location of the vertebrae compression.
Dogs with mild signs of wobbler syndrome can sometimes be treated conservatively with anti-inflammatory medications, restriction of movement, and a neck brace. If this isn't sufficient, your vet may recommend surgery. The three most common types of surgery are ventral decompression, vertebral distraction/fusion, and dorsal decompression. Surgery typically has a higher success rate in treating the disease than medication alone. Visit your vet to determine the best treatment plan for your dog.
Prognosis for Dogs With Wobbler Syndrome
The severity of the condition determines the prognosis for dogs with wobbler syndrome. Dogs with mild symptoms have a high chance of recovery following surgery, but dogs with advanced symptoms may never walk normally again, even if the surgery is successful. If your severely symptomatic dog gains improved motor function following surgery, it may need months of intensive physical therapy in addition to regular recovery. In any case, you should seek out treatment to reduce as much of your dog's discomfort as possible.
How to Prevent Wobbler Syndrome
Because the cause of wobbler syndrome is not fully understood, there is no way to prevent its development. Until more definitive conclusions are drawn, the best way to prevent wobbler syndrome is to refrain from breeding dogs that present the disease in order to limit genetic passage.
What causes wobbler syndrome?
Veterinarians don't know what causes wobbler syndrome, but it is evident in some dog breeds more than others. Large and giant-breed dogs appear to be more likely to develop the condition, but it also occurs in small dogs.
Will my dog's gait return to normal after surgery?
Your dog's recovery from wobbler syndrome depends on the severity of its symptoms upon treatment. Dogs with mild symptoms will usually make a full recovery, while dogs with advanced wobbler syndrome may never be able to walk normally again.
How do I know if my dog has wobbler syndrome?
Wobbler syndrome is usually easily identifiable by a dog's wobbly gait. If you notice your dog becoming uncoordinated or walking abnormally, bring it to the vet for a diagnosis.
- Degenerative Diseases of the Spinal Column and Cord in Animals. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Danourdis, Anastassios M. "The Diagnostic and Therapeutic Approach to Cervical Spondylomyelopathy". Proceedings of the 29th World Congress of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, 2004, World Small Animal Veterinary Association.