Canine spondylolisthesis is better known by its informal name -- wobbler's syndrome. It's also known by various other terms, including cervical vertebral instability and cervical vertebral malformation. Whatever you call it, it's a painful condition causing spinal cord compression. Treatment depends on the condition's level of severity in your dog.
Canine spondylolisthesis affects the neck region of the spine. According to the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, spinal cord compression is caused by either a small spinal canal and herniated discs, or a small spinal canal with bony changes to the vertebrae pressing on the spinal cord. If the spinal nerves or roots compress, the dog suffers a great deal of pain.
Although any dog can suffer from canine spondylolisthesis, the condition occurs more often in certain breeds. These include the bassett hound, Doberman pinscher, Weimaraner, Great Dane, mastiff, Old English sheepdog, Irish wolfhound, German shepherd, Rottweiler, Swiss mountain dog and Bernese mountain dog. Wobbler's syndrome affects large canines far more often than small dogs, with males more prone to the disorder. In some breeds, such as the Great Dane, symptoms appear in dogs under the age of 3. In other breeds, including the Doberman pinscher, canine spondylolisthesis generally appears in dogs aged 6 years and up.
Initial symptoms consist of hind leg weakness, giving rise to "wobbling." Eventually, the wobbling also affects the front legs, and in severe cases the dog becomes paralyzed. Some owners might not recognize their mildly affected dog has a problem, attributing his odd gait to clumsiness in a giant breed. While wobbler's syndrome can come on suddenly, or acutely, it usually starts slowly and progresses over time.
Your vet diagnoses your dog via X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging, computed tomography scans and myleographs. Each diagnostic device plays a role. Your vet can see where the spinal cord compression occurs as well as changes and bony growths in the vertebrae. These tests rule out other possible diagnoses, such as spinal tumors.
Mildly affected dogs might respond to steroid medication, along with activity restriction. More severely affected dogs require surgery, the extent of which depends on where the spinal cord is compressed or the vertebrae malformed. After surgery, dogs must rest for two to three months -- not an easy situation when you're caring for a very large dog with limited to no mobility. Dogs also need physical therapy to prevent muscle atrophy and bone fusion. The University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine recommends that dogs rest on waterbeds after discharge. It notes that "exercise carts for nonambulatory patients can be constructed with a little ingenuity from discarded aluminum lawn furniture or hospital gurneys."
By Jane Meggitt
University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine: Canine Wobbler Syndrome
University of Sydney: Disorder Spondylolisthesis
Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine: Wobbler Syndrome
petMD: Wobbler Syndrome in Dogs
DVM360: Know Signs, Therapeutic Options for Canine Wobbler Syndrome
About the Author
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.