Wobbler syndrome in dogs and cats
What is wobbler syndrome?
In dogs, wobbler syndrome or Cervical Spondylomyelopathy is a neurological disease that causes malformations of the neck vertebrae, resulting in spinal cord compression.
The condition gets its name from the most common symptom – a wobbly or unsteady gait – which occurs when the malformed bones compress the spinal cord, obstructing the flow of nerves from the body to the brain.
Cats suffer from a similar condition called wobbly cat syndrome or Cerebellar Hypoplasia (CH), which is a neurological condition that occurs when the cerebellum fails to properly develop and causes serious balance issues. The condition is congenital and cannot be developed later in life.
What causes wobbler syndrome?
In dogs, wobbler syndrome is generally a genetic condition and is more common in certain large breeds such as Dobermans, Great Danes, Rottweilers and Dalmations. However, it can affect any dog at any age.
Cerebellar Hypoplasia is common in kittens and is usually caused by the mother catching feline parvovirus during pregnancy, however, the condition can also arise due to brain trauma while developing or exposure to other inflammatory diseases when still in the womb.
What are the symptoms?
In dogs, the most obvious symptom is a wobbly gait or weakened legs, however, there are also a number of other clinical signs your pet may be suffering from wobbler syndrome:
- Stumbling or swaying
- Short or ‘floating’ steps
- Ataxia – limb weakness and incoordination
- Dragging of feet
- Neck pain and stiffness
- Limb paralysis
- Wide based stance
While the condition is similar to wobbly cat syndrome, there are a few notable differences in symptoms:
- Head tremors
- Wide gait
- Loss of balance
- Inability to judge distances
Symptoms can occur at any age and tend to come on gradually. As there are a number of other spinal column conditions that can cause similar symptoms, as soon as your pet starts displaying any of the above signs, it’s important that you contact a veterinary specialist as soon as possible.
How is it diagnosed?
In order to gain a clearer picture of your dog’s condition and for an accurate diagnosis, an X-ray of the spine and neck will be taken to view the bone abnormalities. As proper positioning is essential in order to diagnose the condition, sedation may be needed to avoid causing your pet further pain.
Advanced imagery scanning is needed to accurately diagnose the disease, and to determine the right course of treatment. An MRI and CT scan will be performed to examine the extent of spinal cord compression along with the number of lesions. Similarly, your neurologist is likely to undertake a complete blood count and a cerebrospinal fluid sample to rule out other conditions or infections and to confirm the diagnosis.
On the other hand, while there is no singular test to determine whether or not your cat is suffering from wobbly cat syndrome, for an accurate diagnosis, your vet can take an MRI to confirm an underdeveloped cerebellum, while other routine exams such as blood work and a urinalysis may also be performed to rule out other serious conditions.
How is wobbler syndrome treated?
For older pets, or where surgical treatment is unlikely to help, we will always recommend non-surgical treatment options in an effort to keep your pet as comfortable as possible and to reduce symptoms.
Exercise management: for dogs suffering from wobbler syndrome activity and exercise should be restricted, and your pet should be encouraged to rest. Try taking your dog on short walks and avoiding any jumping, climbing or high-impact activities, but use chest harnesses rather than a leach on a collar to prevent any unnecessary stress on the neck and spine.
Medical management: anti-inflammatory drugs or a course of corticosteroids may be prescribed in order to reduce spinal cord swelling and pressure.
Physical therapy: to help your pet to manage their symptoms, build strength and improve their mobility, we may recommend ongoing rehabilitative support.
Please note that if your pet is prescribed non-surgical treatments, they are likely to need regular and ongoing treatment to manage pain and retain mobility.
There are a number of different surgeries that have been shown to be effective in treating wobbler syndrome and helping to minimise the clinical signs of the condition. The specific treatment plan depends on symptoms along with the number of lesions, the severity of the case and the general health of your pet.
The most common surgery for wobblers syndrome are:
- Decompressive surgery: which involves removing the tissues causing the compression, reducing the pressure on the bones.
- Vertebral stabilisation: during which the vertebrae are stabilised and fused together to create more space for the spinal cord.
While all surgery comes with potential complications, we make sure you understand what these are, and how the surgery will work before we admit your pet, along with ensuring you know the short and long term expectations.
What is the prognosis?
The prognosis of your dog depends on a number of different factors such as their age and general health along with the severity of the condition – and amount of spinal cord compression – and the treatment undertaken. As treatment is designed to stop the progression of symptoms, dogs with less severe cases have a greater chance of recovery after treatment and surgery. However, it’s important to note that your dog may never walk normally again, even if they have a great quality of life, and recovery from wobblers syndrome relies heavily on an owners ability to help with post-op care and therapy.
Is there any treatment for cerebellar hypoplasia?
Unfortunately, while there is no cure or treatment for cerebellar hypoplasia, the condition is unlikely to cause other health problems or behavioural issues and cats your pet is likely to adapt. Although they are likely to require some extra care and attention, there’s no reason why your cat can’t live a long and happy life.
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