Wobblers Syndrome (also called spondylolithesis), is a condition that can affect puppies or adult dogs. They develop an unsteady gait due to spinal cord compression caused by the narrowing of the vertabral canal, or by a ruptured disc in the neck. This causes the vertabral ligaments to become loosened and overstretched (hypertrophy) to the point of an inability to tauten properly when strength is needed. The vertebrae become malformed, or do not come together properly, which puts pressure on the spinal cord causing gait problems and moderate to severe discomfort.
Rapid growth of large breed dogs and a predisposition to vertebrae conditions are considered factors for developing Wobblers. The definite causes of Wobblers Syndrome are unknown, but studies show that like other degenerative joint and ligament diseases, there might be a genetic factor (hereditary), possible over stimulation, or perhaps even a nutritional imbalance.
Great Danes and Doberman Pinchers seem to be most affected and males twice as often as females. Wobblers has also been seen in other breeds – Boxers, Basset Hounds, Bull Mastiffs, St. Bernards, Weimaraners, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Dalmatians, Samoyeds, Old English Sheepdogs, and Irish Setters. Symptoms can appear in Great Dane puppies as early as 10-to-18 months although it is most commonly seen between 3 and 9 years of age.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of Wobblers Syndrome are progressive, and show up gradually as the dog ages. Signs of Wobblers Syndrome often begin with a mild, unsteady gait in the dog’s hind legs. This “wobbly unsteadiness” often spreads to the front legs. In severe cases, the dog becomes wobbly when he walks and can even fall over when trying to turn. In some cases, the onset of symptoms is sudden, although that is infrequent.
The early manifestation of Wobblers Syndrome in dogs can mimic other health problems such as arthritis, hip dysplasia or even an inner ear infection. Wobblers Syndrome is a serious and progressive condition in which an abnormality in the spine pinches the spinal cord. It’s rare enough that you or your veterinarian may not recognize its symptoms at first, especially if your dog isn’t one of the breeds where Wobblers Syndrome occurs most often. It’s difficult to treat, but best if caught early. Here are some things to look for to help you recognize symptoms of Wobblers Syndrome in your dog:
- Mild, unsteady gait in the hind and/or front legs – If your dog moves stiffly, look for the characteristic symptoms of Wobblers Syndrome. The dog may drag his hind toes as he walks, one of the typical symptoms. The stiffness may seem worse in his hind legs, and he may walk clumsily as if partially paralyzed. Note that he generally won’t show signs of pain, such as whining or whimpering in the early stages.
- Falling when making sharp turns – Watch your dog’s movements when turning a corner. A dog with Wobblers Syndrome may seem fairly normal walking in a straight line, but have difficulty making a sharp turn. He may appear drunk or uncoordinated or even fall down when turning quickly. At other times, he may walk with his hind legs spread wider than normal to give him added balance.
- Walking with a drunken appearance
- Paralysis of the hind legs and/or front legs
- Unwillingness to move the neck – Notice how your dog carries his head. Dogs with Wobblers Syndrome may carry their heads down or lower than usual and move them stiffly.
If your dog is showing the symptoms above and other causes have been eliminated, ask your veterinarian to check him or her for Wobblers Syndrome. Since this disease is due to a compressed spinal cord in the neck, x-rays may help with diagnosis. Your veterinarian may also do a neurological exam and can also advise you about the benefits and risks of other tests, such as a more involved x-ray technique, the Mylogram which may be more expensive or painful. Most veterinary neurologists today recommend CT scans or MRI scans for accurate diagnosis and localization.
Unfortunately there is no simple cure for Wobblers Syndrome, but catching the condition early can help give you and your vet a chance to discuss the options for treatment or surgery to slow down or stop its progress.
The best way to prevent Wobblers Syndrome is to feed large breed puppies a diet that will keep them from growing too quickly. Your veterinarian can help you determine which diet will work best for your dog. Many cases of Wobblers cannot be prevented because they are genetic in nature. It’s best not to breed dogs that have the condition as they may pass it to their offspring.
Treatment for this condition can vary, depending on the severity of symptoms. Corticosteroids like prednisone can help reduce inflammation and help eliminate most symptoms. A neck brace can also help in serious cases because it stabilizes the spine and reduces inflammation. Pets suspected of having Wobblers Syndrome should not be walked with a neck collar and should be lead exclusively using a harness.
In some cases, surgery is recommended. The surgeon will fuse the unstable vertebrae together to relieve pressure on the spinal cord. This option is not always a good choice since other vertebrae can become compromised as a result of the surgery. However, this option provides the most chance for fixing the problem and prevention of any worsening of clinical signs. Your veterinarian will be able to help you determine what treatment option provides the greatest benefit to your dog.
Since there is not yet a cure for Wobblers Syndrome, dogs suffering from this condition must be managed with medication and restricted activity, especially at times when they are experiencing the most discomfort. In some cases, a dog with mild Wobblers can live happily without treatment, while in other cases, treatment is required in hopes that the dogs can live a normal life.