I am not sure why all of our maladies have such long names that are difficult to pronounce. Some diseases and disease processes I learned about when famed veterinarian/writer James Herriot and I went to school have changed names three to five times over the years. But there may be one dog malady that has more names than any other: Wobbler’s syndrome (layman’s term) or cervical spondylomyel opathy (professional term) are among the terms for cervical vertebral (neck spine) instability.
So, as complicated as this problem can be—and as varied the multiple ways it can result in the same outcome and the multiple locations in the neck spine that the lesions can occur—we are going to call it Wobbler’s syndrome, or Wobbler’s, for short.
Wobbler’s sucks. The reason it sucks is that perfectly normal and happy dogs are afflicted with a neurologic disorder that cripples the animal’s gait while the front half is usually still happy and healthy. You see, Wobbler’s causes a very unstable, staggering, drunk-like gait (called ataxia). It is as if your pup doesn’t know where his feet are. This causes him to adjust other body parts/limbs to facilitate, which can lead to other injuries, from falling down to stumbling into further trouble.
Wobbler’s syndrome, medically speaking, is compression of the spinal cord of the neck at some portion of the seven-bone vertebrae that comprise the cervical spine. Squishing the spinal cord is never a good idea, ever. There are many causes of this compression.
One of the more prominent causes is herniation of the spine’s discs into the space it doesn’t belong: the spinal column. There are a ton of reasons this might happen, from genetic to mechanical, but strangely less from injury or trauma. Bony changes in the neck vertebrae will alter the position of the edges of the cervical spine, pushing upward into the spinal cord and causing the back legs to become criss-crossed and unsupportive. Often, the top of the foot will hit the ground instead of the bottom. Worst-case scenario is that all four legs get affected and the dog can’t walk at all. Sometimes ligaments above the spine will push downward, compressing the spinal cord. There are many other compressions that can occur from the top, bottom and sides, but the above three cover the more common bases.
Further complicating matters is that the compression can be constant or intermittent. The intermittent type of spinal cord compression is referred to as dynamic compression. Some dogs will have evidence of the problem radiographically in the neck and yet to have any symptoms. Still other dogs will have severe symptoms and no radiographic evidence of a problem, and will need further imaging.
Good news for some, bad news for others. Wobbler’s usually is a disease of large breed dogs; although any dog can get it. Strangely, two breeds are affected at a much higher incidence than any other: Dobermans and Great Danes.
Great Danes tend to get the problem early on, usually before they reach age 3. Dobermans, on the other hand, get it more often as middle-aged adults. (Personally, I have seen more German Shepherds with it than any other breed of dog.) A lot of research into why this occurs in these breeds and at these different ages of onset has been conducted and is quite illuminating. Your vet will hopefully explain it to you in layman’s terms. In essence, differing processes end in the same result—a wobbly dog in any number of legs, sometimes in pain, that cannot get from point A to point B in normal stead.
Treatments are not one-size-fits-all, as you probably already have figured out. Solutions must be tailored to the causes; and since there can be multiple causes, there are multiple solutions. To determine the causes, the standard diagnostics will need to be performed to rule out other causes and guage anesthetic candidacy. Blood samples and X-rays come first; although, ultimately, an MRI will need to be done, as well. There are surgical options. There are medical options. There are combinations of both as options, too—all employed to get your dog, well, back on its feet.