What is wobbler’s syndrome in dogs? I personally had never heard of this odd sounding disease until I was studying for my vet tech certification; Then after I started my career in a veterinary hospital, I became quite familiar with it.

Wobbler’s syndrome is a neurological disease that affects mainly large and giant breed dogs. A neurological disease is one that affects the nervous system, namely, the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. The clinical term for wobbler’s syndrome is cervical spondylomyelopathy, which is almost as difficult to say as it is to spell, so we call it CSM.

CSM also refers to another fancy term, cervical vertebral instability (CVI).

Cervical (neck) Vertebral (spine) Instability. In a nutshell, wobbler’s syndrome in dogs is a neurological condition that occurs due to compression of the animal’s spinal cord in the neck region. This results in the characteristic staggering, wobbly gait in the dog’s hind legs. Hence, the name.

What causes this condition?

There is no definitive known cause but there are several theories. Genetics is thought to be the main culprit in wobbler’s because the disease is much more common in certain breeds.

Researchers speculate that nutrition could play a role. Excess calcium, protein, vitamin D and phosphorus fed early on may cause large breed puppies to grow too fast, resulting in skeletal malformations (in the neck vertebrae specifically) because of fast growing bones. Small Dog Skeleton Representation

Some evidence suggests that certain members of affected breeds have an abnormally small cervical spinal column compared to other dogs of the same breed.

Although ongoing research always offers hope, the truth is that whether the disease is genetic, environmental, or a mixture of both, is not clearly known or understood.

In the way of prevention, if you brought your Great Dane or Irish Wolfhound puppy to the vet for his first shots (both are considered giant breed dogs), the good doctor would likely recommend a low protein diet to prevent too rapid bone growth in your new pup.

Which dog breeds are most commonly affected?

Doberman Pinschers and Great Danes are the canine breeds most commonly affected by wobbler’s syndrome. A Doberman Pinscher is considered a large breed dog, a Great Dane is a giant breed.

However, according to the Veterinary Medical Database of North America, only about 5.5% of Dobermans have wobbler’s syndrome and 4.2% of Great Danes. Irish Wolfhounds are the second most common giant breed affected by this condition.

Doberman Pinscher Sitting in the WoodsDoberman Pinschers typically develop wobbler’s in their middle age to senior years, starting at about 6 years old. Great Danes usually begin to show signs of the disease at around age 3. It’s important to note that any large or giant breed dog can be afflicted with wobbler’s syndrome, but it’s most prevalent by far in certain breeds. Some others include German Shepherds, Weimaraners, Rottweilers, Bernese Mountain dogs, and Mastiffs.

What are the signs of wobbler’s syndrome?

A Doberman Pinscher by the name of Beau was the first animal I encountered at my workplace (veterinary hospital) who had wobbler’s syndrome. His concerned pet parents brought him in because when he did a head shake after his bath, he yelped in pain. He continued whining until his owners hurriedly brought him in to our establishment.

Since wobbler’s syndrome occurs because of cervical spinal cord compression, neck pain can certainly be a symptom; however, some dogs do not show any signs of discomfort.

The most common clinical sign of wobbler’s is an uncoordinated, wobbly gait in the rear legs. Typically, the front legs will be rigid with  short, choppy steps. There is a tendency to stumble when the animal tries to make a turn, and often the hind feet become scuffed from knuckling. Dogs that do have neck pain often walk with their head down. Other signs include general weakness of all four legs, and difficulty in getting up from a lying down position.

Symptoms are usually slow and gradual at the onset of wobbler’s, although an acute worsening of symptoms can occur. If left untreated it can progress to partial or complete paralysis. If you observe any of the above early signs in your pet, especially unusual neck pain or difficulty walking, a visit to your veterinarian for a thorough examination and/or diagnosis is recommended. The best test for diagnosing wobbler’s syndrome is an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

What is the treatment for wobbler’s syndrome?

The treatment for wobbler’s syndrome in an affected dog is dependent on 3 factors: the severity of the disease, the rate of progression, and the location. The main treatments are medical management, alternative medicine, and surgery.

Medical Management: The main goals of medical management are adequate pain control, and delaying or preventing progression of the disease. This option by itself (or used with alternative medicine) is usually recommended for older dogs with milder clinical symptoms, or dogs with cervical spinal cord compression in multiple locations (more than three vertebrae). These dogs are not considered good surgical candidates. Cartoon Picture of a Syringe and Needle for Injection

Both corticosteroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are used along with restricted activity or cage rest. Sometimes minimal activity is recommended for several months. These combined therapies can be very successful in many cases.

Certain lifestyle changes should also be carried out, such as walking the dog with a harness instead of a neck collar, using elevated food and water bowls, restricted jumping or using stairs, and discouraging rough play.

Alternative Medicine: Electro-acupuncture treatments using deep needle insertion have been quite successful in treating the earlier stages of wobbler’s syndrome in dogs. The recovery rate is high, with no apparent adverse effects.

Gold Bead Implants are permanent acupuncture therapy. The beads are actually gold-plated magnets implanted in specific acupuncture points on the dog’s head and back, using a sterile technique with a special needle that doesn’t cut skin. The result is long term stimulation to the points, and relief from the symptoms of wobbler’s.

Surgery: In some severe cases, surgery is the only treatment option; However, that is not necessarily a bad thing. The fact is that surgical treatment for wobbler’s syndrome in dogs offers a success rate of 80%. That’s pretty darn good considering the nature of this disease.

The aim of surgery for wobbler’s syndrome is to decompress and stabilize the affected areas of the dog’s spinal cord. There are several different types of surgery to treat wobbler’s and certain factors should be taken into consideration when deciding which one should be performed. But the attending neurosurgeon will discuss the best option with the pet parent(s).

What is wobbler’s syndrome in dogs?

Hopefully you now know a bit more than you did about this undesirable canine disease. I assisted in the successful recovery of 3 surgical candidates, and although recovery is by no means an overnight affair (it typically takes 6 months to a year), their degree of recovery afforded them a good quality of life.

Dogs treated with medical management (anti-inflammatory drugs and crate rest) will likely need some standard of pain management for the rest of their lives. Beau (the doberman patient I mentioned earlier in the article), was brought in every so often by his loving owners for a shot of corticosteroids.

I have personally had no experience with dogs recovering from wobbler’s after being treated with acupuncture, but the research definitely seems encouraging.Harlequin Great Dane on a Dog BedThank you for stopping by My Geriatric Dog and reading my article about wobbler’s syndrome in dogs. Please leave me a comment, question, observation, or share an experience below.