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What We Know about Wobblers in Dogs

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It’s no easy task to describe wobblers in dogs because it’s not just one single problem, and there is still a lot we don’t know about it. "Wobblers" isn’t even necessarily a specific diagnosis, but rather a combination of spinal abnormalities that cause a "wobbly" gait, or way of walking.

Cane Corso with wobblers in dogs

What Is Wobblers in Dogs?

Wobbler syndrome is a colloquial term used to describe cervical spondylomyelopathy, a multifactorial disease process that affects the spinal column of the neck, causing compression of the spinal cord. 

“It is one of the most common conditions to affect the cervical spine in large and giant breed dogs,” adds Dr. Amy Thibault, veterinary neurologist at Southeast Veterinary Neurology.

Dr. Thibault examines a Doberman Pincher for wobblers in dogs

What Are Signs of Wobblers in Dogs?

Symptoms can vary with the severity and duration of spinal cord compression, but the most common sign of wobblers in dogs is its signature wobbly walk due to weakness in all four legs. 

Although the condition affects all four limbs, symptoms are generally more obvious in the back. Quite often, what’s known as a two-engine gait is seen with wobblers, where it appears as if the front and back legs are moving at different speeds. 

Signs of wobblers in dogs may include:

In some cases, progression of wobblers can lead to paralysis in dogs.

What Causes Wobblers in Dogs?

Multiple factors can lead to the development of wobblers in dogs, but one key abnormality in dogs with this condition is narrowing of the spinal canal, which predisposes the spinal cord to compression. Due to the prevalence in certain breeds, there is likely a genetic component.

Common abnormalities contributing to wobblers in dogs include:

  • Narrowing of the spinal canal
  • Abnormal development of the spine
  • Degenerative changes to the spine
  • Thickening of spinal ligaments and/or bones
  • Bulging discs

There are two distinct types of wobblers in dogs: osseous-associated and disc-associated. 

Osseous-Associated Wobblers in Dogs

Osseous (bone)-associated wobblers is most common in younger giant-breed dogs, with an average age range of 1-4 years and its poster child being the Great Dane. 

Great Dane with osseous-associated wobblers in dogsWhile it is multifactorial, osseous-associated wobblers in dogs is primarily caused by thickening of the bones that make up the spinal canal, which constricts the spinal cord. 

Disc-Associated Wobblers in Dogs

Disc-associated wobblers is most common in older large-breed dogs, with an average age range of 6-10 years and its poster child being the Doberman Pinscher.

doberman with disc-associated wobblers in dogsIt is also multifactorial, but primarily involves a bulging disc. As you may already know if you follow us, dogs can develop degenerative disc disease, where the intervertebral discs that sit between the bones of the spine begin to deteriorate with age and bulge. In cases of disc-associated wobblers in dogs, there’s a bulging disc pushing up on the spinal cord from below, in addition to an already narrow spinal canal. 

Now you may be wondering how disc-associated wobblers is different from cervical disc disease… 

“The key difference from disc disease alone is that the bony vertebrae and ligamentous structures between them are causing compression of the spinal cord as well, not just a disc. The spinal cord is already predisposed to compression by a disc because of a relatively narrow vertebral canal,“ explains Dr. Thibault.

How is Wobblers Diagnosed in Dogs?

While patients may be easy to identify when they walk into the exam room due to their signature wobble and breed characteristics, diagnosis of wobblers in dogs is best confirmed with MRI. MRI is more accurate than any other imaging tool in identifying the site, severity, and cause of spinal cord compression, and it plays an important role in choosing the most appropriate treatment for an individual patient.Doberman gets MRI to confirm wobblers in dogs

Is There a Treatment for Wobblers in Dogs?

Treatments for wobblers in dogs focus on managing pain, controlling inflammation, and relieving spinal cord compression. While there are both medical and surgical options, there is no consensus on the best treatment at this time. 

“Recommendations depend heavily on the individual patient’s case including severity of neurological symptoms, prior response to medical management, and the type and severity of compression,” notes Dr. Thibault.

Medical Treatment of Wobblers in Dogs

Conservative medical management is often recommended for mildly affected dogs and dogs that are unable to undergo surgery. 

Medical treatment of wobblers in dogs may include:

  • Restricting activity
  • Anti-inflammatory medication
  • Pain medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Adopting a low impact lifestyle
  • Using a chest harness instead of a collar
  • Adjusting the height of food and water bowls

dog gets physical therapy for wobblersSurgery for Wobblers in Dogs

Dogs with more severe signs and dogs that are unresponsive to medical management are candidates for surgery. 

Surgical techniques for wobblers in dogs may include:

  • Decompressive procedures to remove any bone, soft tissues, or discs compressing the spinal cord
  • Distraction or fusion procedures to stabilize the bones of the spinal column

What Is the Prognosis for Wobblers in Dogs?

Unfortunately, this condition is progressive, and there is no one set way to manage patients at this time. Although dogs will initially have a positive response to treatment, symptoms may progress over time. Because of this, the overall prognosis for wobblers in dogs is fair.

“In general, studies report that about 70-90% improve neurologically after surgical treatment and about 50% improve with medical treatment. However, survival times for dogs treated medically versus surgically have been reported to be similar,” reveals Dr. Thibault.

Learn More about Wobblers in Dogs at Southeast Veterinary Neurology 

Wobblers in dogs, or cervical spondylomyelopathy, is a degenerative disease that causes spinal cord compression and leads to neurological symptoms including difficulty walking and pain. But there is hope for your family and a second chance for your dog at Southeast Veterinary Neurology (SEVN), where early diagnosis and management can slow the disease process, improve comfort, and enhance mobility. 

Please contact one of our locations in Miami, Boynton Beach, Jupiter, or Virginia Beach to learn how you can give your dog its quality of life back. Don’t wait. We’re available today!

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