The condition referred to as Wobbler’s has many names. Wobbler’s Syndrome in large and giant breed dogs is easy for the pet parents to remember because it is very descriptive. The dogs diagnosed with this condition ‘wobble’ when they walk - most often in the back legs. The veterinary terms vary, the most common being cervical spondylomyelopathy, cervical vertebral malarticulation-malformation and cervical vertebral instability.
The problem most often occurs in the vertebrae of the neck. The bones themselves are malformed. Depending on the degree of bony abnormality an instability is created between the two vertebrae. More than two can also be affected. The instability results in further changes to the facet joints and the supporting ligaments. These alterations can cause compression of the spinal cord and there may be nerve root involvement. In older dogs the persistent instability can, and does, contribute to disc degeneration. A degenerate disc is unable to adequately absorb shock and becomes susceptible to herniation. The end result is an impedance of nerve impulses from brain to limbs, and vice versa. This disruption of messages causes the characteristic “wobble”, or ataxic gait seen in affected individuals. The condition is also painful.
The choice of treatment is often surgical, aimed at relieving the pressure placed on the spine and if possible, stabilisation of the vertebrae. Over the last 12 years AHAH has been involved with the rehabilitation and management of dogs with this diagnosis that have been treated both surgically and conservatively. This has enabled us to formulate some sort of idea of expectations regarding recovery and the possibility of the dog living a relatively normal life. The dogs can be divided into two groups based on the symptomatology; those that are unable to walk or balance with or without severe pain, and those dogs that present with milder symptoms of ataxia and controllable pain.
Severely Affected Dogs Many of these dogs struggle to move, rise from a sitting or lying position, and exhibit pain which does not respond well to medications. They frequently fall over which can worsen the pain because they are unable to brace themselves when they lose their balance. These dogs require surgery. After surgery the dogs may be quadriplegic. As we are working with dogs that weigh between 40 and 65 kilograms this can present a huge logistical problem when the dog is discharged from hospital. Physical rehabilitation practitioners are able to assist with returning the dog to some form of mobility as quickly as possible. We also advise on the practical aspects of home management of a large, disabled dog. In most instances the dog’s are able to move themselves around after 6 weeks. Further rehabilitation is required beyond that to return the dog to full functions of daily living. Once the dog has returned to functional mobility, there may still be remaining neurological deficits. Our experience is that if not regularly attending therapy (every week or every fortnight) then weakness can develop again fairly rapidly. Those patients that have stayed with our facility have enjoyed full, active lives following their surgery.
Mildly Affected Dogs
Dogs that show mild balance and gait problems, with mild pain that responds to anti-inflammatory medication can enjoy a normal life but certain lifestyle changes should be made. Teach your dog to enjoy being in a crate or in a smaller area that limits movement. It is entirely likely that there will be episodes where the symptoms flare-up. Confinement and medication are crucial to alleviating the symptoms. Secondly, when exercising the dog do so in a harness as opposed to a collar. Too much pressure exerted on the neck, when using a collar, can intensify the clinical signs. Arrange regular therapy sessions, especially initially, to teach the dog awareness of its limbs, to strengthen the legs and also to activate the core muscles. Core stability is an essential component in limiting excess movement and dependency on the legs. Many of our patients remain for the duration of their lives because of the benefits of therapy. If, however, this is not possible then a home program can be devised that will attend to the factors mentioned above. It is recommended that an initial therapy program at the rehabilitation facility is attended.
In conclusion, the expectation is that once a dog has been diagnosed with Wobbler’s Syndrome then the commitment to health and wellness is lifelong. This will require lifestyle changes and resources (specifically time and money). Dedication on the part of the pet parent results in an active life for their dog, coupled with the enjoyment of companion’s company.