Ask the Edmonds Vet: What is Wobbler Disease?

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By Dr. David Gross

I overheard some people at the dog park talking about Wobbler Disease, what is that?

This is a condition seen most commonly in tall, long-necked horses and large breeds of dogs, particularly Great Danes and Dobermans. The disease is characterized by an abnormal gait in the front and/or the hind legs. The animal seems to “wobble” when walking or exercising. Some animals seem to have a stiff neck, may appear to be weak or lazy, that is reluctant to move, stumble more than normal or seem to misstep. There may be a generalized unsteadiness, hindquarter weakness or knuckling over in the lower leg joints, particularly in the hind limbs.

The term is frequently applied to several different abnormalities resulting in ataxia, defined as a proprioceptive deficit (loss of sense of where the animal places his or her feet). In advanced cases, the animal may fall as it struggles to walk. In horses, it includes a specific condition known as Equine wobbles anemia. There is considerable controversy about the potential genetic nature of Equine wobbles anemia. Other specific conditions that can result in the same set of signs include at least three different malformations of the cervical (neck) vertebrae; protrusion of an intervertebral disc, disease of the interspinal ligaments or of the articular facets (the joints) of the vertebrae in the neck. Other names for this condition are; cervical vertebral instability, cervical spondylomyelopathy and cervical vertebral malformation. The condition can also be the result of a brain lesion.

The most common cause in both dogs and horses is spinal cord compression from one of the various cervical vertebral malformations, which, again, may or may not be inherited. Spinal cord compression can be either dynamic, occurring only when the animal bends or extends its neck, or static, present all the time.

To make a definitive diagnosis, your veterinarian will have to do a complete neurological exam and then X-rays of the spinal canal including a contrast study (myelogram). The X-rays will have to be obtained with the animal under general anesthetic. While conducting these tests your veterinarian will also rule out the possibility of an infectious agent or a traumatic injury by examining the cerebrospinal fluid.

Some wobblers treated with nutritional and medical management have shown improvement, but the results are not impressive. If the cause is compression of the spinal cord, a veterinary surgeon, with the proper training and experience, can decompress the spinal cord and fuse the problem vertebrae, usually by using Titanium baskets and bone marrow transplants. This is similar to the recent surgery done to the professional football quarterback Peyton Manning. It ain’t cheap folks!

Dr. Gross is the author of “Animals Don’t Blush,” which describes the unique patients and even more unique clients of a veterinary practice in Sidney, Montana in the early 1960s.

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