Canine Cervical Instability Syndrome

by Betty Lewis
    Doberman pinschers tend to develop wobbler syndrome in middle age or older.

    Doberman pinschers tend to develop wobbler syndrome in middle age or older.

    Apple Tree House/Lifesize/Getty Images

    Canine cervical instability syndrome is a serious condition affecting large dogs. It tends to strike certain breeds predictably, but any large breed or giant breed is at risk. If Bubba's cervical spinal cord becomes compressed, he may take on an unsteady, wobbly gait, reflective of the term "wobbler syndrome."

    Cervical instability syndrome goes by a variety of names, including cervical spondylomyelopathy, cervical stenosis, cervical vertebral instability and cervical spondylopathy. It's commonly referred to as wobbler syndrome. Whatever its label, the disease affects the cervical spines of large- and giant-breed dogs. If Bubba has this ailment, his spinal cord and/or nerve roots are compressed, giving him neck pain and neurological issues.

    Bubba's backbone is composed of a group of small bones known as vertebrae. Vertebrae surround and protect his spinal cord, allowing him to move properly and feel sensations, including pain and touch. Each vertebra is separated by a disk, which serves as a shock absorber and allows for movement between each vertebra. If Bubba has cervical vertebral instability, his spinal cord is compressed in the area of his neck, resulting in weakness and lack of coordination of his legs, making him a bit wobbly.

    No specific cause of cervical instability syndrome is known, but dogs afflicted with the condition have herniated, slipped or bulging discs, or bony abnormalities in the vertebral canal around the spinal cord. Either problem will cause the compression leading to wobbler syndrome. But in some breeds of dogs, the issue is more predictable. Doberman pinschers suffering from the disease tend to have slipped discs; vertebral malformation is often at the root of the problem for mastiffs, great Danes, rottweilers, German shepherds, Weimaraners, Bernese mountain dogs and Swiss mountain dogs.

    The obvious sign of cervical instability syndrome is irregular walking or running, often leading to an unsteady gait. Other symptoms include neck pain, difficulty standing after sitting or lying down, muscle loss in the shoulders, partial or complete paralysis in the legs, dragging feet and subsequent worn or scuffed nails, and walking or standing in a crouched position with the head held low. Over time, the condition and symptoms get worse; Bubba's front legs may get stiff or he may adopt a high-stepping gait. If the vet suspects Bubba is suffering from wobbler syndrome, he'll get a thorough exam, including X-rays and possibly a CT scan or an MRI.

    Cervical instability syndrome progresses without treatment. Surgery and medical management are the two available treatment options, and the ultimate choice depends on how severe Bubba's problem is and where his spinal cord problem is located. Surgery always carries risks; however, it's often very effective against the syndrome, particularly if performed early in the condition. If Bubba has surgery, he'll be hospitalized several days following surgery and will need extra TLC following, including staying off steps, help walking and, potentially, physical therapy. Medical management includes administering anti-inflammatory drugs; minimizing neck movement, potentially with a neck brace; and severely restricting activity, possibly including cage rest. Use body harnesses instead of neck collars with dogs who have wobbler syndrome, and do not let them run or jump for at least two or three months after treatment.

    Photo Credits

    • Apple Tree House/Lifesize/Getty Images

    About the Author

    Betty Lewis is a writer and editor specializing in pet care, animals, careers and emergency management. She previously ran an animal shelter, where she also served as a kennel attendant and dog trainer. Lewis holds a bachelor's degree in journalism, an M.B.A. and a master's degree in professional studies.

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