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Wobbler Syndrome in Dogs (Cervical spondylomyopathy)

My 3 year-old Great Dane cried out when she shook her head, and then held her head and neck very still after that. I took her to the veterinarian and was told that she has “wobbler syndrome”. What is this condition?

wobbler_syndrome_in_dogsWobbler syndrome is also known as “cervical spondylomyelopathy”, which is actually a more accurate term.

Wobbler syndrome is a disease of the neck (the cervical spine) that is seen in large and giant breeds of dog. These dogs experience compression of the spinal cord and the spinal nerve roots, resulting in nervous system deficits and/or neck pain. Approximately 50% of the cases of wobbler syndrome seen in dogs occur in Doberman pinschers, and other breeds commonly affected include the Weimaraner, Great Dane, Rottweiler, and the Dalmation. Despite certain breed predilections, any dog breed may be affected, including small dogs.

"Despite certain breed predilections,
any dog breed may be affected,
including small dogs."

Most giant breed dogs with wobbler syndrome are diagnosed before the age of three, although symptoms may emerge later in life. Doberman pinschers and other large-breed dogs with wobbler syndrome usually present to the veterinarian for clinical symptoms when they are a bit older- the mean age of onset is 6 years. Slightly more males than females are diagnosed with wobbler syndrome.

What are the clinical signs of wobbler syndrome?

Many dogs with wobbler syndrome develop a progressive, uncoordinated gait in the rear limbs. The incoordination may progress to include the front limbs as well. These dogs can lose muscle mass in the rear legs as well as over the shoulder blades. Their toenails may become worn because they tend to drag their feet.

Some dogs with wobbler syndrome will instead develop very acute signs, including neck pain (which can be quite severe), and acute weakness. The weakness can be so severe it can hinder walking altogether.

 

What causes wobbler syndrome?

At one time, excess protein, calcium and caloric intake were thought to be the cause of wobbler syndrome in Great Danes. However, nutrition does not appear to play a role in the development of wobbler syndrome in large-breed dogs. Body conformation was at one time thought to be a contributing factor, but studies found no correlation between body dimensions and the occurrence of wobbler syndrome. Finally, too-rapid growth was proposed as a cause, but has never been confirmed.

 

How is wobbler syndrome treated?

If a dog with wobbler syndrome can be treated medically, rather than surgically, their treatment is generally conducted on an outpatient basis. Conservative, non-surgical treatment consists of managing pain and restricting activity for several months. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are generally prescribed to decrease inflammation of the affected tissues and reduce pressure on the spinal cord and spinal nerve roots. 

"Physiotherapy may contribute to maintaining
muscle mass and speeding recovery."

Non-ambulatory dogs are kept on soft bedding and turned regularly to prevent “bed sores”. Their bladders and bowels must be emptied manually on a regular schedule. Physiotherapy may contribute to maintaining muscle mass and speeding recovery.

Surgical treatment of wobbler syndrome involves fusing the segments of the cervical spine that are unstable. Surgical patients will remain in the veterinary hospital during their initial recovery.  Activity restriction following surgery must be complete and consistent for at least 2 – 3 months following the procedure in order to facilitate fusion of the involved cervical segments.

What is the long-term outlook for dogs with wobbler syndrome?

For dogs with wobbler syndrome who are treated surgically, there is a 1 – 5% chance for significant complications related to surgery, and approximately 20% will have a recurrence. Those dogs treated medically will need management for the rest of their lives, and their treatments will change as their symptoms progress. Approximately 25% of dogs treated without surgery will remain stable.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CRPP

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