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Wobblers Syndrome - More Than Just A Pain in the Neck!

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Wobbler’s Syndrome…More Than Just A Pain in the Neck!

Many dog breeds suffer from specific hereditary conditions.  For example, Golden Retrievers and Boxers are prone to specific cancers and Dachshunds often suffer from back problems.  But a serious genetic abnormality could affect your large or giant breed dog and you might miss the subtle signs.  The name of this painful condition:  Wobbler’s Syndrome.

By:  Dr. Jim Humphries, Veterinary News Network

Tucker is your typical active 3 year old dog.  He has a great home, loving family, plenty of room to run and two canine playmates to roughhouse with every day.  Life seemed so perfect until a sudden yip of pain changed everything.

Tucker, a Great Dane, was coming in from outside, jumping and playing with his canine sister, Lily, a pointer mix.  Thankfully, his owners were present to hear his cry and help him as he struggled to use his right front leg.  They quickly rushed to calm him, keep him from struggling and, of course, keep Lily from worrying over him!

After a night of cage rest, Tucker was doing better, but his owners understood that he needed to go to his veterinarian for x-rays.  Because he is a Great Dane and because of the symptoms the owners described, the veterinarian was very concerned about a condition known as Wobbler’s Syndrome.  It is complex, so it can go by several other more accurate descriptive terms such as; Cervical Vertebral Instability, Cervical Vertebral Malformation-Mal-articulation Syndrome or
Caudal Cervical Spondylomyelopathy

Wobbler’s is a condition found primarily in Great Danes and Dobermans.  In fact, these two breeds make up 80% of the cases.  But any large or giant breed and even a few smaller breeds, like Beagles and Fox Terriers can suffer from this problem. 

Wobbler’s is likely caused by a recessive gene that is inherited from both mom and dad.  There is also some speculation that suggests too much calcium and over-feeding can be involved as well but some specialists disagree. 

But, here’s the real problem…in the breeds mentioned above, the last few neck vertebrae can thicken and narrow the spinal canal and therefore place pressure on the spinal cord.  Slowly, over time, the increased pressure (also called stenosis) causes weakness.  In Tucker’s case, it’s likely that an affected neck bone hit his spinal cord just right during his playing and caused the sudden and extreme pain and even causing a short term inability to use his front leg.  Many owners never see the initial stages of this condition and only become aware when their dog is unable to stand correctly.  When they walk they show a “wobbly walk” (hence the name) and this is known medically as ataxia.

Sadly, unless action is taken, this problem will progress to paralysis and then early euthanasia of the pet as his quality of life worsens.

After confirming the condition with an MRI and a consultation with a neurologist, Tucker’s family needed to find out the possibilities of treating or even curing the condition.  The veterinary neurologist and the veterinary surgeon both suggested a delicate and precise surgery to remove the tops of the affected vertebrae.  The procedure, known as a modified dorsal laminectomy, would relieve the pressure on the spinal cord and allow Tucker a more normal life.  But, the price tag associated with the surgery and all the after care was close to $10,000!

Friends of Tucker’s family encouraged them to look for alternative therapies in order to avoid the big price tag or even just manage him conservatively until his quality of life suffered.  One person even suggested gold bead implantation and acupuncture as a “sure cure” and sent them detailed information from a breeder’s website.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that any alternative therapies offer any real benefit.  In fact, famed veterinary acupuncturist, Dr. Narda Robinson has even stated that using gold beads “poses substantial potential for injury”.

The good news in this whole story is that Tucker’s family had purchased an insurance policy for him.  Even better, the policy covered this specific hereditary condition where many others wouldn’t. They were able to proceed with surgery, knowing that 90% of their costs would be reimbursed.

Tucker’s operation was a success and after his week of recovery in the hospital and a very strict twelve weeks of cage rest and short walks on a harness at home, he is back to his normal, exuberant self.  And his family is relieved that he can live happy, active life without the worry of pain or paralysis.

This case illustrates several important concepts for pet owners.  First, careful observation of your pet can find issues at earlier, more treatable stages. 

Next, all pet owners should consider some sort of “emergency payment plan” for their pets.  Whether it is pet insurance, a pet health savings plan or even a dedicated credit card, it’s important to be prepared.

Finally, find a veterinarian who you trust and who will work together with the specialists team for the best care.  Don’t rely on “Dr. Google” or non-veterinary experts on the Internet for pet health advice and help.  Your veterinarian understands your pets unique needs better than anyone online.