What is the Wobbler Syndrome?
The term "wobbler" originated from a spinal disease of horses that causes
lack of coordination while walking. The canine version is more appropriately
known as Cervical Spondylomyelopathy or Cervical Stonosis. It results in a wobbly
gait when walking or running due to pressure on the spinal cord in the lower
part of the neck. Many of these dogs stumble when walking, and the rear legs
may be affected first.
How does it happen?
This disease begins because there is an instability between two or more vertebrae
in the lower part of the neck. When instability exists, the body attempts to
correct the problem. This results in a thickening of the ligaments that are
within the joint; one is above the spinal cord and two are below it. As these
ligaments thicken, they put pressure on the spinal cord.
The spinal cord is much like a large telephone cable that contains thousands
of wires, each carrying important messages. When the telephone cable is crushed,
the tiny wires within are broken so they cannot transmit information. A similar
event occurs when the spinal cord is compressed by the thickened ligaments.
They are unable to carry messages from the brain to the nerves in the legs,
so the legs cannot move as they should.
My dog is paralyzed in all four legs. Is this part of this disease?
Yes. The pressure on the spinal cord from the thickened ligaments causes the
dog to walk in a very uncoordinated fashion. However, another event often follows.
The instability present between the vertebrae also puts unnatural stress on
the disc that is located between the bones. After weeks or months of stress,
the disc will rupture. When this happens, the pressure on the spinal cord is
so great that paralysis occurs. This may involve only the front legs or, in
other cases, all four legs.
Are certain breeds of dogs more commonly affected than others?
Yes. Great Danes, Dobermans and Basset Hounds are commonly affected breeds,
but any large breed is at risk for this disorder. Great Danes are usually affected
when they are young, about 1-3 years of age. Dobermans and other breeds are
typically 6-9 years of age when the symptoms begin.
How is the diagnosis made?
Radiographs (x-rays) of the neck often reveal that the cervical vertebrae
are not properly aligned. If the dog is one of the prone breeds, and the symptoms
are correct, this provides strong evidence of the wobbler syndrome. However,
plain radiographs do not show the spinal cord so the presence of pressure on
it cannot be proven in this manner. A myelogram is a radiograph made after a
special contrast material (dye) is injected around the spinal cord. The dye
outlines the cord so that points of pressure can be readily observed. A myelogram
is needed to give conclusive evidence of the wobbler syndrome. It requires general
anesthesia and a special technique.
What is the treatment?
Anti-inflammatory drugs and pain relievers are often prescribed in the early
stages of this disease. They may provide some relief from the symptoms, but
this improvement is usually only temporary. As the disease progresses, medication
will no longer be helpful. Special precautions must be taken when pain relievers
and anti-inflammatory medications are given to Dobermans as there is a high
incidence of inherited bleeding disorders in this breed; some medications may
precipitate a bleeding crisis.
In some dogs, a specially-fashioned neck brace can be helpful in limiting
motion in the neck. This can be helpful in some dogs, especially dogs for which
surgery is not feasible. However, most dogs have progressive disease and are
helped best with prompt surgery.
Successful treatment requires that the pressure be removed from the spinal
cord. There are several surgical procedures that have been used, but none have
been successful in all cases. The findings on the myelogram are used to determine
the surgical procedure that is most likely to be helpful.
What is involved with after care?
The degree of after care will depend on the dog's progress at the time it
goes home. If it can walk, but uncoordinated, it will need assistance so that
a fall does not occur. If it is still paralyzed at the time of discharge, the
amount of after care can be considerable because of the dog's weight. If you
are not able to lift your dog and you do not have someone else who can help
you do so, you should discuss this situation further with your veterinary surgeon
since protracted hospitalization can easily cost more than the operation.
What is the prognosis?
If surgery is performed at the time the dog is uncoordinated, there is a fairly
good chance of success. If paralysis of all four legs has occurred, the success
rate is less.
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