Wobblers syndrome isn't life-threatening, but its symptoms of stiffness and coordination problems look similar to more serious neurological diseases such as equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM). If left untreated, wobblers can impair a horse's ability to move and threaten the safety of its rider, but most owners will notice the condition before it progresses and seek veterinary help to return their horses to good health.
What Is Wobblers Syndrome?
Wobbler syndrome, also known as Cervical Vertebral Malformation (CVM), refers to neurological problems caused by damage or deformation within a horse's cervical (neck) spine.
Symptoms of Wobblers Syndrome in Dogs
Wobblers is a disturbing syndrome to witness and will quickly concern attentive owners. Watch for characteristic signs such as:
Horses with wobblers syndrome will trip often and be stiff and uncoordinated when they move. They may appear to lurch as they canter, have difficulty halting smoothly, and collide the hind with the front feet. Walking up and down hills may be difficult.
The hind end will appear to be more involved than the forequarters. As the condition advances, they may step on their heels, causing lacerations, which in turn can cause lameness. If these cuts are left untreated, they can easily become infected.
Wobblers may be caused by compression or malformation of the spine in the neck that makes the animal stiff and uncoordinated. This may be a result of one (or more) of the following:
- Congenital defect
Deformed or compressed vertebrae press against the spinal column, mixing up the messages from the brain to the limbs, which results in coordination problems. Morgans, quarter horses, and thoroughbreds seem to be affected more often than other breeds. Horses with long "willowy" necks are felt to be more prone to developing wobblers as well.
Malnutrition, generally severe and longstanding, can contribute to wobblers by deteriorating bone, muscle, and connective tissues required to stabilize the spine.
Diagnosing Wobblers Syndrome in Horses
If your horse appears even slightly uncoordinated or is tripping more than usual, then it's time to call the vet. Tripping occasionally can be a result of long hooves, but if the horse is getting regular farrier work, then untended feet aren't likely the problem.
Your vet will first take blood and spinal fluid tests to determine if another neurological disease like EPM is the problem. Physical tests include turning the horse in a tight circle to watch for hind-end coordination problems and backing the horse up, which will be difficult if the messages from the brain to the hind end are getting scrambled.
If no other conditions exist, imaging will be done to look for tumors, vertebrae damage, or other injuries.
Depending on the exact cause of the wobblers syndrome, treatment can include surgery, drug therapy, and changes in the horse's management. Drugs can help reduce swelling that might be impairing the spinal column. Surgery can be done to support the damaged vertebrae.
Nutritional therapy, physiotherapy, stall rest, and exercise can assist a horse’s recovery from wobblers syndrome.
Prognosis for Horse with Wobblers Syndrome
Recovery can be lengthy and, if the horse was used for competition, it may never return to its previous performance level (although some do).
If untreated, a horse with wobblers syndrome can lose its condition and become progressively weaker. The horse may fall easily and have difficulty getting up. Although wobblers won't cause death if left untreated, it will make life a struggle for the animal and a potential hazard for handlers or riders.
How to Prevent Wobblers Syndrome in Horses
Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent a horse from developing wobblers syndrome. However, conscientious breeding practices can help reduce the occurrence of this syndrome.