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Wobbler's Syndrome in Dogs

Pet Column for the week of April 8, 1996

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Linda March
Information Specialist

Wobbler's syndrome, more technically called cervical vertebral instability (CVI) affects large breed, fast-growing dogs.

According to Dr. Alistair McVey, a veterinarian formerly at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine at Urbana, wobbler's syndrome is seen primarily in older Dobermans and younger Great Danes. The younger dogs normally come to the veterinarian at about 10 or 14 months of age with a clumsy or wobbly gait. The owner may think the dog is just not got it all together because it is growing so fast, but hidden bone changes have been taking place.

Older dogs may be ataxic (wobble) when they walk, especially in the hind end. The front legs may take short choppy steps as well. The older doberman likely has been having some difficulty getting around at home and progressively gets worse over time. The dog may also carry its head low because of the neck pain. Or, in some cases, the dog is acutely down and unable to stand.

"What happens is that these dogs look like they have arthritis and will be stiff. Then the dog will rupture a disc and be unable to stand or walk," notes Dr. McVey.

Once your veterinarian has decided that CVI is the problem, medical management may be advised. Restricted activity and cage rest for up to one month may be the order, as well as pain control medicine and anti-inflammatory drugs.

If medical management offers no improvement or the dog's condition gets worse, surgery may be indicated. Before the dog goes to surgery it needs to have a "work-up" done. This includes blood work to check the animal's ability to tolerate anesthesia, and to check clotting times before surgery. For older dogs, radiographs will indicate whether there are any cancer lesions in the chest.

If tumors are contributing to the problem, the veterinarian and the owner may choose not to do surgery and continue with the medical treatment for as long as the dog is comfortable. Survey radiographs of the vertebra in the neck followed by a myelogram (injecting a contrast agent around the spinal cord) allow the veterinarian to see where and how many lesions exist there. A CT scan (computer tomography) may also be helpful in determining how much damage has been done to the spinal cord.

"A good prognosis generally means the dog can return to function. It will be able to ambulate, urinate and defecate normally and be pain free. The dog will probably never be 'normal'. It will still have a strange gait, but will be able to get around without pain," notes Dr. McVey.

The best case is the dog that has been steadily getting more ataxic and suddenly goes down. These animals have ruptured a disc. This material can be surgically removed with good results.

If the bony changes have compressed the spinal column and caused atrophy (shrinkage), surgery can not correct it. Sometimes the best that can be hoped for is to stabilize the vertebral column and prevent further changes from occurring. There is no one best surgical technique for all animals. It depends on where the problem is and how many areas are affected.

If surgery is the choice made by owner and veterinarian, the owner must be aware of the extensive nursing care required when the dog comes home from the hospital. Immediately after a myelogram or surgery the dog is usually worse before it gets better. It may take from one week to two months for the pet to get up on its own.

To help prevent CVI in young animals, select a dog that doesn't have a history of this disease in its family line. Feeding a well-balanced diet without supplementing minerals is important for proper bone growth. Large breed, fast-growing dogs may also benefit from being switched to an adult food at an earlier age (for example six months). Good quality food will meet their requirements, but slow the rate of growth, thus avoiding problems later.

For older animals, about the only prevention is to use a harness instead of a leash to decrease the amount of pressure on the neck.

If you have any questions about cervical vertebral instability, call your veterinarian.