Wobbler disease is a condition where the spinal cord is compressed. Wobbler disease in pets may also be referred to as Wobbler Syndrome, or cervical vertebrae instability in dogs, cats and horses. It involves an anatomical malformation of the cervical neck vertebrae or bones that results in a narrowing of the vertebrae. Subsequently, this presses on the spinal cord, usually in the lower part of the neck, and disrupts the nervous system. This results in missed signals to and from the brain.
This disease creates various physical abnormalities, usually in the gait and balance of a dog, cat or horse. Protrusion of the intervertebral discs not only causes structural malformation of the vertebrae, but also disease of the structures of the ligaments found between the vertebrae. It tends to be more prevalent in dogs than in cats; however the cause is unknown. Mechanical issues, physical trauma and rapid growth rates are considered contributing factors to developing this disease.
Excessive consumption of calcium in the diet, known as hypercalcitonism, may cause the vertebrae to develop at too fast a pace, whereby the vertebral canal becomes too narrow for the spinal cord. A combination of all these factors may cause Wobbler disease.
Wobbler disease tends to spread generally across all breeds of cats. With dogs, it is quite prevalent in certain breeds, specifically the Great Dane (at an early age of 3-18 months) and Doberman Pinschers (much later at 3-9 years of age). Other dog breeds that are affected include:
Old English Sheepdogs
SIGNS and SYMPTOMS
The most common symptoms include uncoordinated movements and weakness. The onset of the symptoms may be slow, and can become worse without any medical treatment. If your cat or dog used to be vibrant, energetic and agile, but then starts to move in an unsteady or drunken-like fashion, and can’t seem to become stable when they get up from the ground, this could be a sign.
It is quite common for a young Great Dane to be clumsy as a puppy, but if they are becoming too clumsy, it’s time to see your veterinarian. The symptoms are usually on both sides of the body and start in the hind legs, though eventually all four legs are affected. The slightest trauma can make the condition worse. In the Doberman Pinscher breed, they may experience severe pain in the neck region, usually caused by the intervertebral discs slipping.
It is important to take your animal to your veterinarian for proper evaluation and diagnosis, because some symptoms and conditions are similar to that of Wobbler disease. It is possible for a cat or dog to live a physically active and healthy life. A series of neurological tests would be conducted, including x-rays of the cervical spine. Sometimes an x-ray is not sufficient and a procedure known as a myelogram will be necessary, but it’s expensive and needs to be done by a qualified veterinarian, because it can be dangerous.
A diagnosis of Wobbler disease is not a life sentence, and there are many approaches that will help you manage the situation, making it easier for your pet. Treatments depend on the severity and duration of the condition, as well as the age of the animal. Another factor that influences the method of treatment is the number of sites where the neck has been compressed. The goal of the treatment is to reduce the pressure on the spinal cord so the ‘wobbly’ gait is stabilized.
Corticosteroids are usually given to control the symptoms and reduce inflammation in the spinal cord. Mandatory kennel rest follows the administration of steroids, along with minimizing movement of the neck region using a brace. Do not self-medicate your pet by using common painkillers like Acetaminophen or other drugs, as these can result in fatalities. Tylenol can kill cats by disrupting their metabolic processes. Always check with your veterinarian before giving your pet any medication.
Surgery is necessary in some cases to stabilize the neck and decompress the spinal cord. It is important to find a qualified veterinary surgeon to perform the procedure. Also, be aware of the risks: trauma, hemorrhage, paralysis and even death. Some animals have done well with electro-acupuncture; however more research is needed.
EXERCISE AFTER TREATMENT
Physical exercise is definitely a part of treatment because it will help your dog or cat regain muscle tone and strength that may have been lost during the course of the disease and required kennel rest. Keep it simple with walks, so undue stress is not placed on the recovering animal. Here are some tips for when you bring your pet home:
- Feed your pet the same time each day with nutrient-dense food
- Keep your pet away from slippery surfaces to avoid making the condition worse
- Enjoy light walks with your dog when they are ready
- Keep your pet in an area that is well ventilated
- Observe proper hygiene
There are some natural remedies that can help; however they are no substitute for proper veterinary care and not all animals can use natural remedies. Allergic reactions and digestive problems are a possibility; however apart from conventional pharmaceuticals, some animals do well with the following supplements:
Green-Lipped Mussel – contains glucosamine, Omega-3 fatty acids and minerals to help reduce inflammation and relieve joint pain.
Boswella – an anti-inflammatory agent that increases blood supply to the neck, including the joints that speeds up the repair process.
Reviewed and Approved by Dr. David L. Roberts, DVM
Photo: Courtesy iguana_box via Flickr (CC by 2.0)