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Cervical Vertebral Instability (Wobbler syndrome )

By: Dr. John McDonnell

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Wobbler Syndrome is a term loosely used to encompass compressive spinal cord lesions affecting the caudal cervical spine (the spinal cord at base of neck) in large- and giant-breed dogs. The syndrome represents a developmental malformation and malarticulation of the cervical vertebrae (neck bone) in dogs that causes compression of the spinal cord.

The cause is likely to be multifactorial with genetic, nutritional and biochemical influences. The presence of a large, heavy head on a long neck may create abnormal forces that contribute to abnormal vertebral development.

The spinal cord compression causes the clinical signs, particularly in the rear legs. Commonly, the first signs are simply slipping or scuffing the paws during exercise. Other signs are highly variable and depend on the degree of compression and the duration of the signs.

Most cases have an acute onset. The course of the disease may be progressive (worsen over time) or static (be static and not change over time). Occasionally, dogs can be affected by an acute onset of quadraplegia (paralysis in all four limbs). Many times these dogs have shown no previous signs of neck disease and have no history of trauma.

Two distinct diseases are described as Wobbler Syndrome. Both diseases have similar signs that relate to the animal's gait, which include weakness and incoordination in the pelvic (rear) limbs. It can cause paralysis of both thoracic and pelvic limbs.

Developmental Abnormalities

The first disease is seen in young dogs arising from developmental abnormalities causing malformation and malarticulation of the spinal column and is more common in young dogs from six-months to two years of age. In this disease all cervical joints may be affected.

This disease is seen most frequently in Great Danes but other large- and giant-breed dogs may be affected. Nutritional studies in Great Danes have shown that ad libitum (free-choice) feeding of some diets in young dogs can increase the prevalence of the disorder. Chronic, excessive calcium intake in young dogs can result in hypercalcitonism, which disturbs skeletal remodeling and ossification and may contribute to abnormal vertebral development.

Disk Herniation

The second disease syndrome is seen in adult dogs arising from type II disk herniation with accompanying vertebral ligamentous hypertrophy caused by vertebral instability. This disease affects the disk spaces C5-6 and C6-7 but C3-4 and C4-5 may be affected. Multiple disk spaces may be affected. This disease entity is seen in mature dogs between three- and eleven-years-old with an average age of six years.

In the disease seen in the older Doberman pinschers, it is usually caused by a disk degeneration secondary to vertebral instability.

Other breeds that can be affected with Wobblers Disease include:

  • Mastiff
  • Rhodesian ridgeback
  • Irish wolfhound
  • Irish setter
  • Rottweiler
  • Labrador retriever
  • German shepherd
  • Golden retriever
  • Weimaraner
  • Great Pyrenees
  • Bernese Mountain Dog
  • Bouvier des Flandres
  • St. Bernard
  • Swiss Mountain Dog
  • Mixed breed dogs

    Dogs that have been diagnosed with Wobblers Syndrome should not be used for breeding or work.

    Other diseases that mimic Wobbler Syndrome include:

  • Trauma – car accidents or wounds from bullets or arrows
  • Diskospondylitis – in infection of the disk space and vertebrae
  • Cancer – primary or secondary (metastatic disease)
  • Inflammation or infection of the spinal cord
  • Juvenile orthopedic diseases – hypertrophic osteodystrophy, panosteitis, osteochondrosis dessicans

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