What is Canine Wobbler’s Syndrome and How Can it be Managed?

As the name suggests, Wobbler’s Syndrome (also called Cervical spondylomyelopathy) causes gait abnormalities in dogs. Dogs with this condition can show signs of paralysis or weakness, and they may fall over or appear to slip on the floor. It can affect the hind legs as well as the forelegs, and it can either have a slow and progressive onset or occur suddenly. Sometimes you will even see your dog’s front paws cross over each other creating a very unsteady walk.  Often you may notice that the tops of their paws are “scuffed up” from dragging them on the floor. It is also often accompanied by severe neck pain. The symptoms are due to compression and pinching of the spinal cord and nerves of the neck.

Wobbler’s syndrome can strike any dog, but large dogs are more likely to suffer from it, with the Doberman and Great Dane at the top of the list.  My nine-year old Labrador Retriever Chester has it but none of the vet’s he routinely sees wanted to say it out loud because it is not as common in Labs.

Wobbler’s syndrome affects two groups of dogs. One is young dogs of large breeds, and it tends to be caused by a developmental abnormality of the vertebrae in the neck. The other group is older dogs, mainly Doberman Pinschers, and is associated with instability of the vertebrae and disease of the intervertebral disc.

But not all unsteady gaits means your dog may have wobblers.  In Chester’s case he also had anaplasmosis (a tick borne illness) which is treated with antibiotics.  He still had wobblers but his condition improved significantly once he started antibiotics.

How is Wobbler’s Diagnosed and Treated?

Your veterinarian will suspect Wobbler’s syndrome based on your pet’s age, breed and symptoms but diagnostic tests are usually needed to confirm it. An x-ray may be suggestive, but a myelogram or an MRI are the best ways of detecting any narrowing of the spinal canal that is affecting the spinal cord.

There is no single treatment for Wobbler’s syndrome because there are a number of causes of the condition but it generally falls into two categories, medical management and surgery. Treatment options are aimed at easing pressure on the section of the spinal cord that is compressed. Often, if your dog’s symptoms are mild, your veterinarian may start conservatively using medical management.  This would involve extensive cage rest; a neck brace, use of a harness instead of a collar; and anti-inflammatory drugs, typically corticosteroids (such as Prednisone). Acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, gold bead implants and physiotherapy are natural therapies you may also want to explore.

Often, though, Wobbler’s needs surgery. A variety of surgical options exist — and newer methods continue to be researched — but they all aim to “decompress” the spinal cord and provide support to the spine to avoid recurrence. Recovery after surgery can take quite some time, and the outcome varies. The prognosis is better if your dog can walk before his operation; patients that are completely paralyzed may not respond as well.

Living with Wobbler’s Syndrome

Once a dog has had treatment for Wobbler’s syndrome, he can be at increased risk of developing a similar problem in other parts of his neck. There are things you can do to reduce the risk of recurrence.

  • Be careful with vigorous exercise. Your dog should be exercised on a leash.
  • Use a neck brace in situations where your dog may get over-excited. A neck brace will restrict the movement of his neck, reducing the chances of further injury. It also increases your dog’s confidence it walking as his neck is more stable
  • Replace his collar with a harness. Wobbler’s is a disease of the neck vertebrae. Walking your dog using a leash attached to a collar will put pressure where it is not needed.
  • Provide crate rest. This will allow the inflammation in your dog’s spinal cord to subside.
  • Use medication as directed. Your veterinarian may prescribe medication and you should give it to your dog according to their instructions.
  • Use a raised dog bowl for feeding and water so that they do not have to bend their neck down potentially causing pain.

Wobbler’s syndrome can be difficult and expensive to manage. However, with the right type of medical or surgical treatment, a dog with Wobbler’s syndrome can enjoy a relatively normal healthy life.


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