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Wobbler Syndrome in Dogs

What is Wobbler Syndrome in Dogs?

Wobbler Syndrome, also known as cervical spondylomyelopathy (CSM), is a distressing neurological condition found in dogs, primarily affecting the cervical or neck region of the spine. Veterinarians use various names to refer to this condition, including cervical vertebral instability (CVI), cervical vertebral malformation (CVM), and cervical spondylopathy.

There are two main forms of Wobbler Syndrome: Disc-Associated Wobbler Syndrome (DAWS) and Bony-Associated Cervical Spondylomyelopathy (BACS).

In DAWS, dogs experience a “slipped disc” or intervertebral disc herniation, commonly observed in large-breed dogs aged over 3 years.

BACS is characterized by bony malformations that lead to spinal cord compression, resulting in gait issues and potential pain if nerve roots are affected. This form is most prevalent in giant-breed dogs, typically young adults under 3 years old. Dobermans and Great Danes are the most commonly affected breeds.

Dobermans usually exhibit the classic form of the disease with disk herniations, typically manifesting in middle-aged to older dogs (around 6 years old), while Great Danes tend to develop the typical form seen in giant breeds, involving bony changes at a younger age.

Although rare, small breed dogs can also develop Wobbler Syndrome. Breeds predisposed to the condition include Borzoi, Rottweiler, Mastiff, Weimaraner, Irish Wolfhound, German Shepherd, Bernese Mountain dog, Swiss Mountain dog, and Basset Hound.


Symptoms of Wobbler Syndrome in dogs manifest as a loss of motor function and coordination in the legs, along with a diminished sense of position. Motor function, governed by motor nerves, becomes impaired in dogs affected by spinal cord disorders, leading to gradual or sudden onset of symptoms.

Dogs afflicted with Wobbler Syndrome often exhibit a “wobbly” gait, particularly noticeable in their hind legs, especially on slippery surfaces and during slow walks. They may lower their 

head while walking, indicating potential neck pain. As the condition progresses, symptoms extend to all four legs, causing difficulty in standing up, pronounced weakness, and even front leg collapse. In advanced stages, approximately 5 percent of dogs may experience sudden paralysis in all four limbs.

Typical clinical signs of Wobbler Syndrome include:

  • Unsteady gait
  • Neck stiffness, head held down, and signs of discomfort when shaking the head
  • Weakness
  • Short, spastic, or weak strides in the front limbs
  • Muscle atrophy near the shoulders
  • Worn or scuffed toenails due to uneven walking
  • Increased extension of all four limbs
  • Difficulty rising from a lying position
  • Partial or complete paralysis


The precise causes of Wobbler Syndrome in dogs remain unknown to veterinarians. While there is a suspected genetic component to the disease, the evidence regarding genetics remains inconclusive. Some speculation has arisen regarding nutrition, particularly in cases where Great Danes consume excessive amounts of protein, calcium, and calories. However, it appears that nutrition does not contribute to the development of Wobbler Syndrome in giant-breed dogs.


If your dog displays symptoms associated with Wobbler Syndrome, especially difficulty walking or signs of neck pain, it’s crucial to schedule a visit to your veterinarian’s office promptly. During the consultation, your vet will gather a comprehensive medical history and conduct both physical and neurological examinations to assess the potential neck or neurological issues.

The physical examination encompasses various assessments, including measuring your dog’s weight, body temperature, heart rate, and breathing rate. Your vet will also listen to the chest, palpate the abdomen, and evaluate joint range of motion and gait for any abnormalities.

The neurological examination focuses on specific areas:

  • Evaluation of the head and neck
  • Assessment of cranial nerves responsible for taste, smell, hearing, sensation, facial expressions, eye blinking, and tongue movement
  • Observation of gait in walking and running
  • Examination of the front and hind legs
  • Assessment of the torso, including the chest, abdomen, pelvis, and back
  • Evaluation of muscle tone in the anus and tail

Baseline laboratory tests, including bloodwork (complete blood count and chemistry panel), urinalysis, and stool testing, are conducted to rule out conditions with similar symptoms.

Imaging studies such as X-rays and myelograms (imaging of the spinal canal) help exclude other conditions like diskospondylitis, tumors, and inflammatory spinal cord diseases. Advanced imaging modalities like MRI or CT scans are performed to visualize spinal cord compression caused by disc herniation or bony changes.

Typically, these diagnostic procedures are conducted by veterinary specialists in larger animal hospitals, universities, or specialty clinics and necessitate general anesthesia to ensure the dog remains completely still during the examination.


The treatment approach for Wobbler Syndrome in dogs varies based on the location and severity of the condition. Typically, cervical (neck) surgery is recommended for the best chance of improvement, although surgery always carries risks of complications.

For dogs where surgery is not a suitable option, medical management provides an alternative treatment pathway. This may involve:

  • Administration of anti-inflammatory drugs, including steroids like Prednisone or non-steroidal medications like Carprofen, to alleviate pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots.
  • Pain relief medication.
  • Activity restriction for a certain period.

Medical management is often suggested for dogs displaying minimal clinical signs, those with spinal cord compression in multiple areas, or those with other health issues that pose surgery risks. Given the neck-related problem in affected dogs, neck leashes should be avoided, and chest harnesses are strongly recommended. Dogs unable to walk should be placed on soft bedding and rotated regularly to prevent sores.

Some dogs may require assistance in emptying their bladder and bowels regularly if they cannot do so independently, as these functions rely on affected nerves. Dogs showing persistent symptoms unresponsive to medical management may be considered for surgery if they are deemed suitable candidates.

The objective of surgery is to relieve pressure on the spinal cord and prevent further damage, although it cannot reverse existing damage. While most dogs may not regain normal walking ability post-surgery, it can enhance their quality of life. Potential risks associated with surgery will be discussed by your veterinarian based on your dog’s diagnosis.

Following surgery, activity should be restricted for a minimum of 2-3 months to allow healing of the spinal cord and vertebral bones.

Research into alternative treatment methods, such as artificial disc replacement, is ongoing, drawing parallels with surgical interventions used in people with a similar condition known as cervical spondylotic myelopathy.

Recovery and Management of Wobbler Syndrome in Dogs

The prognosis for dogs affected by Wobbler Syndrome depends on three critical factors: the severity of spinal lesions, neurological damage, and the type of treatment administered.

For dogs experiencing severe difficulty in standing or walking, the extent to which surgical intervention can aid recovery remains uncertain. Conversely, dogs with mild symptoms stand a better chance of recovery. Despite undergoing surgery and receiving medical management, some dogs afflicted with Wobbler Syndrome may never regain normal walking abilities. Nevertheless, when complemented with physical therapy and diligent post-operative care, treatments offer a significant opportunity to enhance the overall quality of life for affected dogs.

Wobbler Syndrome in Dogs FAQs

Is Wobbler Syndrome in dogs hereditary?

The exact cause of Wobbler Syndrome in dogs is still unknown. While research suggests a genetic component, the evidence regarding genetics remains inconclusive.

What is the life expectancy of a dog with Wobbler Syndrome?

Dogs with Wobbler Syndrome typically have an average survival time of around four years, regardless of whether they undergo medical treatment or surgery.

Can dogs fully recover from Wobbler Syndrome?

Even with medical intervention or surgical treatment, some dogs may never regain normal mobility after being diagnosed with Wobbler Syndrome.

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