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Wobbler syndrome

This condition is encountered most frequently in large and giant breeds of dog, and especially Dobermans. It causes progressive difficulties in movement and an abnormal gait. Investigation and surgical treatment is usually carried out by specialist veterinary orthopaedic surgeons or neurologists.

Your questions answered

What is Wobbler Syndrome?

Wobbler Syndrome is a descriptive name given to a number of conditions affecting the spine of large and giant breeds of dog. The correct medical term is cervical spondylomyelopathy. The term 'wobbler' is used because it describes some of the characteristic signs shown by affected dogs, ie they often appear to be unsteady on their feet.

Is my dog likely to develop Wobbler Syndrome?

Certain breeds of dog are particularly at risk of developing this condition. Commonly affected breeds are Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, Bassett hounds, Irish Wolfhounds and Great Danes. Middle-aged animals are most commonly affected, but Wobbler Syndrome can occur in young dogs too. Several factors are thought to interact in causing Wobbler Syndrome, including genetic predisposition and nutritional problems. Over feeding or giving nutritional supplements to large breed dogs when they are growing has been suggested as a possible cause.

What causes Wobbler Syndrome?

In dogs with this condition the spinal cord in the neck is compressed by abnormalities occurring in the backbone and associated tissues. Abnormalities include abnormal shape of individual neck bones (vertebrae), the way they articulate (join) with each other, problems occurring in ligaments connecting the vertebrae, and problems with the discs between the vertebrae. The result is that the sensitive spinal cord gets compressed to a greater or lesser degree. Compression of the spinal cord results in pain and damage to the nerves.

How would I know if my dog has Wobbler Syndrome?

Signs of disease include:

  • Weakness and incoordinated gait (known as ataxia), beginning in the hindlimbs.
  • Lameness in the front legs.
  • Neck stiffness (or pain).
  • Partial or complete paralysis.

Usually, the initial signs are fairly mild, eg occasional hindlimb weakness, difficulties getting up when lying, scuffing of the toe nails. These signs progress in severity and affected animals often take short abrupt steps with the frontlimbs. Lameness can occur if the nerves supplying an individual front limb are especially compressed.

Sometimes, the signs appear very suddenly (although the disease may have been progressing for some time) and may lead to confusion with other causes of severe locomotion problems, eg injury after a road accident, or similar.

How will my vet know what is wrong?

In order to see what is going on in your dog's neck your vet will probably want to take some x-rays for which a full general anaesthetic will be required. A number of x-rays are taken including the use of a specialised technique known as a myelogram. Your vet may want to refer your dog to a specialist for this procedure. Newer techniques such as MRI give even better views of the problem, but are more expensive.

From the images obtained, the nature of the problem in each individual case can be assessed. Your vet will want to identify the precise locations where spinal cord compression is occurring so that appropriate treatment can be planned.

What is the treatment?

If untreated, dogs with Wobbler syndrome will often get worse. Surgery is often indicated to improve the dog's quality of life and try to prevent further deterioration. In old dogs, or those which are considered a poor surgical risk, non-surgical measures may be most appropriate. Dobermans are prone to a number of other diseases which can increase the risks associated with anaesthesia or surgery, eg von Willebrand's disease, causing poor blood clotting, hormonal diseases such as hypothyroidism or heart problems such as cardiomyopathy. Your vet may advise that your dog is tested for these conditions before surgery.

Surgery is difficult, time-consuming and requires specialist expertise. The surgeon should explain the procedure and give an outline of the likely prognosis, as well as warning of potential complications.

The outcome for dogs following successful surgery can be good, although this depends on a number of factors. The type of spinal cord compression, the time that clinical signs have been present, and the dog's weight and age can all affect the outcome.

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