Wobbler Syndrome: Your One-Stop Guide

Silver haired lady with black labWe love big dogs for their boundless energy and big hearts, but our human-sized animal friends do come with unique health problems. One of the most complex and serious diseases that can develop in large and giant breed dogs is Cervical Spondylomyelopathy (CSM), commonly known as Wobbler Syndrome. Wobbler Syndrome is a broad term for a progressive disease that involves compression of the vertebral column and, as a result, spinal cord trauma. Under the guise of common health conditions such as arthritis, Wobbler Syndrome is often overlooked. It is easy to assume that the initial symptoms of the disease—clumsiness and unstable back leg gait—will pass in time. However, if left untreated, spinal compression will become chronic and can spread, leading to severe neurological issues and extreme inflammation.

 

Contents

 

Is Your Pet at Risk of Developing Wobbler Syndrome?

Wobbler Syndrome Causes

Wobbler Syndrome Symptoms

Wobbler Syndrome Diagnosis

Treatments for Wobbler Syndrome

 

Is Your Pet at Risk of Developing Wobbler Syndrome?

 

It is important to note that Wobbler Syndrome will rear its head differently depending on your pet’s breed. While young dogs are especially vulnerable to developmental bone-associated Wobbler Syndrome (BAWS), older dogs are at-risk of developing degenerative disc-associated Wobbler Syndrome (DAWS). Wobbler Syndrome is about twice as likely to occur in male dogs than in females. While some breeds are particularly prone to developing Wobbler Syndrome, the disease can occur in a wide variety of breeds.

 

Breeds at Risk of Developmental Wobbler Syndrome (BAWS) Include:

 

 

Breeds at Risk Degenerative Wobbler Syndrome (DAWS) Include:

 

 

Other Animals at Risk

 

Other dog breeds known to develop Wobbler Syndrome include the Boxer, Basset Hound, St. Bernard, Weimaraner, German Shepherd, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Samoyed, and Old English Sheepdog.

 

Although dogs are the most common sufferers of Wobbler Syndrome, horses are also prone to the disease. According to Rossdales Veterinary Surgeons, an estimated 2-3% of Thoroughbreds develop Wobbler Syndrome, usually between the ages of six months and three years. The Merck Veterinary Manual states that the most commonly-afflicted horses are Tennessee Walking Horses and Warmbloods, with males more commonly affected than females.

 

Wobbler Syndrome Causes

 

Although there is no official known cause of Wobbler Syndrome, the spinal abnormalities that cause the disease are thought to find their roots in genetics and nutrition. Larger breeds of dogs often grow at accelerated speeds, which results in instability in the cervical spine. Large dogs are also easy to overfeed, which can lead to a nutritional imbalance, such as too much protein or too many calories. Although these are the most prevalent theories, the Canine Inherited Disorders Database goes so far as to suggest a possible autosomal recessive hereditary link to Wobbler Syndrome in the Great Dane, Doberman Pinscher, and Borzoi breeds.

 

Wobbler Syndrome Symptoms

 

There are three stages of Wobbler Syndrome symptoms—the first of which can be very mild. Even if you just see your pet experiencing some general stiffness or instability in the back legs, it never hurts to schedule a vet appointment:

 

First Stage Symptoms

 

  • Back leg clumsiness, most obvious when the animal is rising to a standing position or trying to maneuver around turns or navigate stairs (see the typical Wobbler gait disturbance here)
  • Abnormal or widened back leg gait
  • Worn-down back leg toenails (from abnormal gait)
  • Anti-social behavior (avoiding playtime, appearing moody, etc.)

 

Second Stage Symptoms

 

  • Spreading of stiffness and unusual gait to the front legs
  • Spreading of stiffness to neck, which causes the animal to walk with their head down
  • Trouble getting up
  • Buckling of legs

 

Advanced Stage Symptoms

 

  • Intense fatigue
  • Buckling of front legs
  • Paralysis (in about 5% of all Wobbler cases)

 

If you suspect your dog may have Wobbler Syndrome, there are a couple changes you can immediately implement to your dog’s routine while you’re waiting for that vet appointment:

 

  • Change from a neck collar to a harness, in order to take the pressure off the neck
  • If your dog is having trouble walking (perhaps you have slippery wood floors that are starting to give your pet some trouble), it may help to put down a grippy walkway, such as rubber runners that are used under carpets. This will hopefully help your dog gain back some confidence!

 

If your pet has Wobbler Syndrome, it will only become glaringly obvious in the later stages of the disease, as the clumsiness and stiffness spreads from their back legs into their front legs and neck. So, it is vital to detect the disease as early as possible in order to reduce chronic compression on the spine and maximize chance of recovery.

 

How is Wobbler Syndrome Diagnosed?

 

In order to rule out other possible issues, your veterinarian must first do both a physical and neurological examination. Next, radiographs might be taken to examine the vertebral column, followed by MRI to visualize the spinal cord and intervertebral discs. A CT scan may also be helpful in order to examine the shape of your pet’s bones. Another common test performed on Wobbler patients is a myelogram, which involves injecting dye into the spinal canal in order to determine the exact location of spinal compression. Some sources, however, recommend avoiding myelograms due to their invasive nature.

 

Treatments for Wobbler Syndrome

 

As we explore the best treatment options available for Wobbler Syndrome, it is important to note that there is no cure for this disease—only ways to stop its progression. The more we know, the more we can spread the word and help our fellow big-dog lovers notice those first signs of Wobbler Syndrome—before the disease becomes chronic.

 

Always remember that, like human healthcare, animal healthcare is an art, full of intricacies and variations. So, make sure you work with your vet in order to asses all possible Wobbler Syndrome treatments—and combinations of treatments—before you and your vet decide which track is best-suited for your pet.

 

Surgical Treatments for Wobbler Syndrome

 

Due to the severity of the disease, surgery is very common for Wobbler Syndrome. The most common surgical methods for Wobbler patients involve removing a portion of the spine in order to reduce compression and diminish pressure on the nerves.

 

What Factors Determine Wobbler Syndrome Surgical Candidacy?

 

  • Age: the older your pet, the riskier surgery becomes.
  • Underlying cause of compression on spinal cord: is it bone-related or disc-related?
  • Number of compression sites on the spine: the more compression sites, the more difficult surgery becomes.
  • Location of compression site(s): some locations around/on the spine will be harder to reach via surgery.
  • Your pet’s personality: You know your pet best. Is your pet mentally and physically ready for surgery? Remember that the end of the surgical procedure is just the beginning of the recovery process—post-operative care and physical therapy are necessary in order to give your pet the best chance of recovery.
  • Progression of the disease:
    • If caught in its early stages, your pet may not need to go through the trauma of surgery. There are many non-invasive options that may provide more relief and stave off the progression of the disease.
    • In the later stages of Wobbler Syndrome, surgery may just make things worse.

 

What Will Wobbler Surgery Cost?

 

Due to the unique nature of each individual Wobbler case, the cost of surgery is contingent on exact diagnosis. Pet insurance may be helpful for those considering surgery, as insurance can help cover up to 90% of your pet’s surgery-related bills.

 

Wobbler Surgery Recovery

 

Due to the chronic nature of most Wobbler cases, it is unlikely that surgery will completely remove all spinal compression. According to a study conducted by Ohio State University, out of 104 dogs suffering from Wobbler Syndrome, surgical success rate was approximately 80%. Wobbler surgery patients require a great deal of post-operative care, including physical therapy. This is vital in order to ensure that your pet stays active and doesn’t experience muscle atrophy. Although your veterinarian may recommend limiting your pet’s activity, this does not mean your pet should be bedridden; try to let your pet live as normally as possible. Although they may not be able to roughhouse or jump around the way they used to, they should remain active.

 

Non-Invasive Wobbler Treatments

 

Depending on the severity of your pet’s symptoms, non-surgical solutions may provide significant relief. Wobbler Syndrome causes a great deal of inflammation, as does surgery, so anti-inflammatory solutions can be used in a multi-modal approach (perhaps in addition to surgery) and, in more mild forms of the disease, can provide relief as a stand-alone therapy. Wobbler Syndrome is a multifaceted disease, so even if you do opt for a surgical solution, other treatment options may still be of great use.

 

Managing Wobbler Syndrome with Medications

 

According to a study done by Ohio State University, approximately 50% of 104 dogs with Wobbler Syndrome improved with medical management (using a combination of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids), while 30% remained stable and 20% of patients had symptoms worsen. Medically managing Wobbler Syndrome can clearly provide some much-needed relief–but sometimes at a cost. The side effects of pharmaceuticals can include gastrointestinal issues such as ulcers, or even liver and kidney toxicity. It is important to note that NSAIDs and steroids do not do anything to stop the progression of Wobbler Syndrome. Rather, they simply provide relief for your pet’s current symptoms. Eventually, tapering off the drugs—or at least reducing the intake—may be necessary.

 

The Assisi Loop as a Safe Treatment for Wobbler Syndrome

 

The Assisi Loop is a non-pharmaceutical anti-inflammatory device (NPAID) that accelerates healing by sending low pulses of energy called tPEMF (targeted pulsed electromagnetic field therapy) to signal the enhancement of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide in turn encourages the body to begin healing and reduces the inflammation on the spinal cord. An Assisi Animal Health clinical trial on dogs with intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)—a disease related to Wobbler Syndrome—found that the Loop provided immense relief for IVDD patients. The Loop has also been found to help reduce inflammation caused by surgery itself.

 

The Loop is economical, portable, and non-invasive, allowing you to treat Wobbler Syndrome in the comfort of your own home. Not only can the Loop provide immense relief, but it can also assist you as you wean your pet off certain medications such as NSAIDs and steroids.

 

If you want to learn more about the technology behind The Assisi Loop, check out our list of approved providers to find a vet near you!

 

The Loop & Wobbler Syndrome: Success Stories

 

Every day we are seeing more and more success stories relating to the Loop and Wobbler Syndrome. You can learn more about the Great Dane named Ranie’s healing journey with the Loop.

 

Another Great Dane who had success using the Loop was Titan—his owner, Laura, comments, “Since I discovered the Assisi Loop and its benefits, we haven’t been without one!” Not only has the Loop helped control Titan’s Wobbler symptoms, but Laura also notes that Titan seems to enjoy his treatments and becomes extremely relaxed “the moment [she] puts [the Loop] on.” The Loop has even been used to help alleviate Wobbler symptoms in lion cubs Araali and Zuberi!

 

Other Non-Invasive Solutions

 

Other popular Wobbler treatments include electroacupuncture, gold bead acupuncture, and chiropractic therapy. For an in-depth alternative solution discussion, check out this panel discussion from Innovative Veterinary Care. 

 

Treatment Name Treatment Type In-Office or At-Home? Side Effects/Recovery
Surgery invasive inpatient procedure possibility of compression occurring elsewhere, great deal of PT necessary
 Electroacupuncture semi-invasive in-office minimal
Chiropractic Therapy non-invasive in-office minimal

 

The Assisi Loop non-invasive at-home none
NSAIDS non-invasive at-home every animal reacts differently to pills and symptoms may return when weaning off medication

*IMPORTANT NOTE: Because Wobbler Syndrome is a multifaceted disease, a multi-modal treatment approach may be recommended by your veterinarian.

 

DISCLAIMER: Assisi Animal Health does not intend to provide medical advice and Assisi articles are not written by medical professionals. The information provided in this piece is for educational purposes only. Consult your veterinarian before deciding on a treatment plan.