Sonia Hickey shares her personal journey about living with Wobbler’s Syndrome and how to manage her dog, Louie’s lifelong condition.
We were two weeks away from heading overseas on a much-anticipated month-long holiday to Europe when our vet, Dr Mark Campbell, dropped a bombshell: Louie, our three-year-old female Dobermann, had early onset of Wobbler’s Syndrome.
Louie had been off colour for what seemed like weeks, and my husband James and I were keen to sort out her ailments and have her in perfect health before we went away.
Wed had several visits to the clinic with a nasty virus, then Louie developed what we thought was an ear infection she walked as though she was drunk and seemed off-balance when chasing a ball or another dog. She had always been a clumsy animal all legs and paws so when she started to look unsteady we didn’t take it too seriously. She also started to hang her head to one side.
Our vet ruled out the ear infection, and if we hadn’t been going away for such an extended period of time, we might have just decided to leave it at that. But we wanted to be certain wed dealt with anything that might cause a problem for the kennel, so further investigations were done.
When our vet diagnosed Wobbler’s, he outlined options for more specific testing to provide a definitive result, but warned us that the myelogram (where dye is injected into the dogs spinal column and the neck is radiographed) is a very invasive procedure, and has been associated with complications. Given that we were just days away from getting on a plane, we decided not to proceed with the myelogram and accepted the diagnosis.
We were full of the obvious questions, especially because Louie is so young. Our vet explained that Wobbler’s is a luck of the draw kind of thing. Most Dobermanns (and Great Danes) have the genetic potential for Wobbler’s to manifest, and it does so to varying degrees in all dogs of these breeds some noticeable and serious, some not.
He assured us Louie wasn’t in pain and that her symptoms were mild, characteristic with early onset. Because we had been alerted to the syndrome in its early stages, he was also optimistic that we had a good chance of managing the condition so that Louie would still be able to live a long, enjoyable life.
James and I had heard of Wobbler’s, but we knew very little about it. It was a blessing for us that staff at Louie’s favourite holiday resort actually knew about the disease and how to manage her limitations. We were able to go away with some peace of mind.
Louie was really well looked after while we were gone, and when we got home, life settled into its same old routine, except that on some levels Louie seemed to be getting worse. She was struggling going down the three steps from our back deck into the garden. She didn’t want to play with other dogs at the off-lead park, and after running for any length of time her back legs would spasm.
During one visit to the local dog-friendly lagoon, James had to rescue her from drowning in just a metre or so of water. She seemed to have a sudden spasm, lost her balance and panicked. James ended up knee-deep after her. While we both knew the cause of these incidents, it was still heartbreaking to see such a dramatic change.
Louie has always been an energetic, social dog, and while we were concerned about the reduction in her appetite for a good game, we became more worried about her anti-social behaviour with us. At night, usually a time when we all laze around the TV set, Louie would often sneak off on her own to our spare bedroom and lie curled up in the dark.
We also experienced the odd weeing accident on her bed and inside the house, which really set alarm bells off. Louie had taken to toilet-training like a duck to water. James actually taught her to go on command and in fact, its the only thing shes learned with any real ability (except perhaps sitting for food!).
We went back to the vet, who confirmed all Louie’s symptoms were related to Wobbler’s, and after discussing the treatment options with us again, he recommended we maintain a wait-and-see approach. While surgical treatments are available, they are not always successful and are often considered a last resort after anti-inflammatory medications or steroids have been tried.
Our vet believed Louie didn’t need serious medication or surgical intervention yet, and he explained that managing Wobbler’s is all about preserving the stability of the dogs neck. This was the most important discussion we’ve had. Once you understand this simple fact, then it is easy to understand what you need to do on a daily basis to limit the stress on the neck and generally make life more comfortable for a dog with Wobbler’s.
We took off Louie’s collar once and for all (she is micro-chipped anyway), purchased a harness-lead and packed up all her balls and the home alone toy wed recently purchased to keep her amused during the day. The no ball games policy is very difficult to enforce especially with a young Dobermann who loves to play and has absolutely no idea of her limitations, but we did it for six months. Now we just bring out the ball on the odd occasion and we play a very gentle-paced game, and only for 15 minutes at a time.
We limit Louie’s time at the off-lead park too, because while socialisation is important, we aren’t able to control the rough-and-tumble games with other dogs. Our philosophy is that she still needs to be able to enjoy being a dog, doing dog things, but because she can’t tell when enough is enough, we have to make the decision for her.
At our vets insistence, we also notified the breeder. It is difficult, almost impossible, for breeders to eradicate Wobbler’s, given that the condition commonly emerges in adult dogs. Nevertheless, it is important for them to know it is in the gene pool. Our breeder was devastated to discover Louie’s condition, but having a lifelong love and professional relationship with Dobermanns, she was very well informed about the symptoms of Wobbler’s and the treatments. She recommended a natural therapist.
Gary Barnsley has more than 20 years experience in natural therapy and is also patron of the Greyhound Adoption Programme (GAP). We drove an hour-and-a-half to see him and on arrival for our first appointment, we were greeted by the sight of half-a-dozen other Dobermanns waiting their turn. We knew we were in the right place.
Louie now sees Barnsley every six to eight weeks for treatment that primarily involves a combination of laser on her neck (infrared light used to increase circulation of blood and promote healing in the deep tissue) and trigger-point therapy, which reduces muscular spasm and improves joint mobility.
The important thing to remember if you do decide to seek alternative natural therapy is to discuss this with your veterinarian, so that both the veterinary surgeon and the natural therapist can work together for the benefit of your dog. Natural therapies may lack peer-reviewed research to back up some of the claims often made, so its imperative that you are fully informed and aware of your expectations.
Louie’s vet and natural therapist both agree that while they each have an important role to play in her treatment, the most significant thing that will affect the onset and severity of her condition and her quality of life into the future is how we, her owners, manage her condition.
We have learned a lot from their advice and have incorporated many things into Louie’s daily routine as an adaptation to her condition. (See box of tips for owners dealing with Wobbler’s.) It is just over 12 months since we learned Louie had Wobbler’s, and she recently stayed at the kennel that looked after her when she was first diagnosed. The staff was amazed at the improvement in her condition, as it is often the passage of time that heals.
Whatever you’re doing for Louie, its definitely working! one the girls said as we were leaving. A year ago, she could barely walk in a straight line and now shes back to her normal mischievous self!
With special thanks to Louie’s healthcare team: Dr Mark Campbell and Gary Barnsley, who provided information for this article.
Keep positive. Be understanding of your dogs condition. Your dog may have limitations, but you can still have lots of fun together.
Get an accurate diagnosis before you do anything. Ask your vet for an indication of how severe the condition is and what to expect. Keep a diary as an ongoing assessment of your dogs progress. This will help you to keep on top of the condition and change treatments if you need to.
Use a harness lead. This will support your dog around the chest when you go for a walk.
Elevate food and drink bowls. Use a small table/stand. This helps to take pressure off the neck when the dog is eating and drinking.
Exercise your dog. Controlling weight, ensuring fitness and good circulation is important if you have a Wobbler’s dog. Walking on the lead is good because you can manage the pace. Swimming is good too, although you might want to consider a buoyancy vest.
Understand headaches. Neck problems can cause headaches and your dog may sometimes go off alone to a quiet, dark place. Leave him/her alone. Usually the dog is trying to get away from light rather than noise. Tell your vet if these symptoms become very frequent as medication can help.
Socialise your dog. Wobbler’s is not infectious, but supervise off-lead activities and try to ensure they take place on level ground. Avoid rolling with other dogs.
Massage. Ask your vet or natural therapist about gentle techniques you can perform yourself at home on a daily basis to keep the neck muscles supple and the circulation flowing.
Talk! Have a chat to anyone and everyone you meet who is interested in the subject. This can be the best source of information. And keep an open line of communication with your dogs healthcare team let them know what you’re doing and whats working.
Buy a good coat or blanket. Especially if your dog sleeps outside. Cold weather can adversely affect the condition.
Alert your kennel or pet minder. Make sure they limit your dogs playtime and choose playmates that aren’t too rambunctious.
A with veterinarian Dr Mark Campbell
Q. What is Wobbler’s Syndrome?
A. Wobbler’s is either an intervertebral disk-related condition of the spine, or due to one or more vertebrae being malformed. Both causes result in pressure on the spinal cord in the cervical (neck) region.
Q. What are the clinical signs?
A. Ataxia or poor co-ordination, or sometimes dragging the paws, usually in the hind legs first. It can escalate to include the front legs as well, and sometimes even cause total paralysis. It can also affect the nerve supply to the organs and cause problems with bowel and bladder control. Many people explain the Wobbler’s dog as walking like its drunk, which is exactly what it looks like. Sometimes a dog will also walk with its head down or have it at a strange angle.
Q. What breeds does it affect?
A. It is most common in Dobermanns (generally disk disease) and Great Danes (generally deformed vertebra) The latter are usually diagnosed when they are puppies, while in Dobermanns, it tends to be diagnosed between five to seven years of age. It can be found in other large breeds, too, but is not as prevalent.
Q. What causes it?
A. It is almost certainly genetic, although recent research suggests that if puppies are fed too much protein, this can result in their bones growing too fast, therefore causing problems. Wobbler’s can be triggered by a severe virus, but for this to happen, it would be lying dormant in the genes to begin with.
Q. What are the treatments?
A. Anti-inflammatory medication and steroid treatments are often used. Surgery can be performed, but a vet would have to have good reasons to consider surgery, as it offers no guarantees.