Wobbler’s syndrome is the common term used for a disease that causes issues in the cervical vertebrae (neck vertebrae) and leads to compression of the spinal cord and instability (also known as cervical vertebral instability or CVI).

The name Wobbler’s Syndrome comes from the weak, uncoordinated drunken walk that affected dogs have, giving the appearance of “wobbling” as they move. 

What is Wobbler Syndrome?

wobbler syndrome in dogs
Affected patient is having trouble walking

Wobbler syndrome affects the spinal cord in the region of the neck, caused by compression of the spinal cord and the spinal nerve roots which come off of the spine and stimulate motion in the front legs as well as the back legs.

Dogs with CVI may also have neck, back pain or both along with problems moving normally. This is because the canal inside the vertebrae where the spinal cord runs is too small. The narrowing (stenosis) of this area presses against the spinal cord and interrupts the signaling of neurons to the legs, so wobbling often occurs. Causes of CVI is divided into two types. 

One type is associated with the gel-filled disks in the spine that act as a cushion between the vertebrae. If these disks degrade and rupture, it causes spinal compression and affects nerves and blood vessels. Doberman pinschers are most commonly affected with this type of CVI. 

The second type of CVI is caused by a type of osteoarthritis resulting from misshaped vertebra, causing the spinal cord to be compressed.

This type of CVI is suspected to be inherited and occurs more commonly in Great Danes and other large breed dogs. CVI has not been seen in cats. 

Symptoms and Diagnosis

dog with wobbler syndrome spinal cord narrowing
This image shows spinal cord narrowing in the neck where the arrows are

While the first signs of wobblers are often an abnormal gait (walking), symptoms include neck pain and stiffness, lameness or stiffness in the dog’s front legs or shoulders, and difficulty standing or laying down. Your dog can have weakness in the front or hind legs and not want to move, leading eventually to muscle weakness and deterioration. 

The disease can become so severe as to cause partial or complete paralysis in all four legs. Your dog may have a chronic condition, seeming to have weakness or pain that gets worse over time, or the signs of CVI may come on suddenly.

Your veterinarian will likely recommend radiographs or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). MRI is the preferred method for evaluating CVI because it identifies the site, severity, and nature of the compression. 

Treatment

If symptoms of CVI are mild in your dog, reducing exercise is recommended. Using a harness instead of a collar puts less pressure on your dog’s neck. If overweight, reducing calories may be suggested. Your veterinarian may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications.

In more severe cases, your veterinarian may recommend surgery to help stabilize your dog’s spine. Approximately 40-54% of dogs with CVI that don’t require surgery improve. With surgery, about 80% of dogs improve. With or without surgery, your veterinarian will monitor your dog’s progress and response to treatment.

Prevention

Diets to slow the growth of large breed dogs such as mastiffs and great danes can be useful in promoting appropriate skeletal growth allowing the vertebrae to keep growing as the dog’s spinal cord widens during maturation

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