Wobbler's disease is a term used to describe two different pathological processes in the neck of dogs. One form happens in younger large breed dogs, and the Great Dane and Mastiff are the most common breeds. The other form happens in older dogs, and the Doberman Pinscher is the most common breed. It also occurs in horses, but we'll save that for another blog post on another day!
The medical term for the condition in younger dogs is Caudal Cervical Spondylomyelopathy. In this disease, the spinal cord is compressed by increased thickness of the bones in the vertebrae themselves. Typically, this is towards the base of the neck, and it is slowly progressive. While low doses of steroids can help control the disease; this type of medical management does not address the underlying cause and the signs often progress in spite of the drugs. Surgery to remove the compressive bone is often curative but is a complicated procedure and carries some degree of risk.
In older dogs, Wobbler's disease is more aptly termed Disc Associated Wobbler's Syndrome, or DAWS. In these patients the spinal cord compression is caused by bulging of the intervertebral disc and thickening of other supportive ligaments in the vertebrae at the base of the neck. Medical management for this condition also makes use of low-dose steroids. Just like the condition in younger dogs though, medications do not treat the underlying cause and the clinical signs often progress. Surgical options exist for these pets as well, but have often been plagued with complications. Particularly, a problem known as the 'Domino Effect'. We'll discuss this condition and the surgical options in more detail in a later post.
Because both of these conditions occur in the neck and are progressive, dogs can become completely paralyzed if not treated. Classically, these pets have a 'two-engine' gait where the forelimbs take short and choppy strides and the hindlimbs have a longer, loping gait.
If you think your pet might have Wobbler's disease, contact your veterinarian. Oftentimes an MRI is necessary to make the diagnosis, but there are treatment options and help is out there!
This is a video illustrating the gait disturbance we typically see and outlining the story of a dog with Wobbler's Disease that had a disc replacement surgery! If you're interested in learning more about disc replacement therapy and the Adamo Spinal Disc click here.