Living with Sophie and her paralysis for five years has caused me to be hyper-vigilant about neurological diseases that could strike my two other dogs, Cody and Bailey. I watch them like a hawk for possible warning signs of trouble like a limp or weakness in their legs. Overall I think it’s been a good thing because I was able to pick up on Cody’s aggressive arthritis and get him the proper treatment. (That’s a story for the future).
And since adopting Bailey last year, my vigilance has helped me get familiar with diseases that Rottweilers are prone to developing. That’s how I found Wobbler Syndrome; a common neurological disease that affects large and giant breed dogs. While the two main breeds most often seen with the condition are Great Danes and Dobermans, Rottweilers are third on the list.
What is Wobbler Syndrome?
Dogs with Wobbler syndrome typically have smaller than normal spinal canals that eventually become compressed due to a herniated disc, damaged nerve roots or because of bony changes in their spine. It a painful condition that affects a dog’s upper spine and neck leaving them with a wobbly gait and eventual paralysis.
The condition is also known as: cervical spondylomyelopathy (CSM), cervical vertebrae instability (CVI), cervical vertebrae malformation (CVM) and cervical spondylopathy. All of the names, which actually total to 14, refer to a disease of the neck and spinal cord.
Wobbler syndrome gets its name because the number one symptom a dog exhibits during the first stage of the disease is a strange wobbly gait. Pet parents either see the legs of their dog wobble or slip out from under them when they walk. Dogs may also walk with their head hanging down because it is painful to move it in another position.
Without treatment the condition progresses from the hind legs to all four legs. This causes a dog to literally “buckle over” when they take a step. Nearly 5% of dogs with Wobbler syndrome eventually become paralyzed in all four limbs.
Symptoms of Wobbler Syndrome:
- Wobbly gait (this happens more commonly in the hind end, but can also occur in the front limbs first)
- Neck pain and stiffness
- Weakness in the front or rear legs
- Loss of balance and coordination
- Scraping nails while walking
- Short steps or spastic walking
- Difficulty getting up from a lying position
- Partial or complete paralysis
- Muscle loss near the shoulders
Cause of Wobbler Syndrome
The cause of the condition is not known, but the general consensus by veterinary professionals is that there is a genetic basis for the disease. The Ohio State University School of Veterinary Medicine is currently running two studies to learn more. The first research is trying to determine whether the fast growth of giant breed dogs has a role in Wobbler syndrome and in the second study Ohio State researchers are looking at the genetics of the disease in Dobermans.
Another theory about Wobbler syndrome has to do with proper nutrition for giant breed dogs. The theory proposes that Great Danes might be getting excessive amounts of protein, calcium and calories as puppies.
Breeds Most Affected:
- Great Danes
- Doberman Pinschers
- German shepherds
- Bernese Mountain dogs
- Swiss Mountain dogs
- Irish Wolfhounds
- Basset hounds
While both large and giant breeds are prone to Wobbler syndrome the disease strikes them at different stages in their lives. Large breeds generally come down with the disease at around 6 years-old and giant breeds are affected at about 3 years-old.
Diagnosis and Treatment
The best way to diagnose the condition is through an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Initially x-rays might be done to rule out other spinal conditions, but the specific diagnosis of Wobbler syndrome is most accurate with an MRI and it has proven to be the safest method for a dog.
Wobbler syndrome is treated both medically and surgically. Medical management includes restricted activity and the use of anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce spinal cord swelling. This type of treatment is generally prescribed for patients that have an addition health problem which prohibits them from tolerating a surgical procedure.
A study of 104 dogs showed that 50% of them improved with the medical management approach while 30% stayed the same and 20% worsened.
In the same study those dogs who received a surgical form of treatment showed 80% improvement, but the statistics are a bit murky because there are 21 different types of surgeries available to repair the spine of a dog with Wobbler syndrome. Each depends on the severity of the symptoms, the number of bony lesions on the spinal cord and other medical conditions a dog might have.
In both treatment styles dogs are put on restricted activity for two to three months (even after surgery) and physical therapy is prescribed during the recovery phase. All dogs are placed in a body harness for walking because of their weakened necks and taken off leash walking.
The study of the 104 dogs showed that dogs lived on the average of 4 years with the disease whether they received the medical management treatment or a surgical procedure. I found this to be ironic because that 4 years placed large dogs at age 10 because they typically showed the first symptoms of the disease at age 6 and it placed the giant breeds at age 7 because their average onset was 3 years-old. Those numbers put both sets of dogs at a pretty normal life expectancy age.
Wobbler syndrome is clearly a condition that needs more study and research, but it is also clearly a disease you should be watching for if you have a large or giant breed dog.
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